By Miriam Kleiman

Beat Scene Press. Unpaginated. £7.95/15 euros/$17

Reviewed by Jim Burns

Kerouac's Naval Reserve Enlistment photograph, 1943

Biographies of Jack Kerouac have referred to his short experience of trying to enter the U.S. Naval Reserve in 1942. This small publication, published in a limited edition of one hundred and fifty numbered copies, tells the story in more detail than previous accounts.

Kerouac enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve for four years in December, 1942, and reported for training at Newport, Rhode Island, in February, 1943. His reasons for joining up were that he was bored with his studies at Columbia University, and “sought greater meaning at a historic time”. An unmailed letter to a girlfriend stated that he wanted to be “with my American brothers, for that matter, my Russian brothers; for their danger to be my danger; to speak to them quietly, perhaps at dawn, in Arctic mists; to know them…….”.

It sounds almost-Whitmanesque, and perhaps also points to the vague left-wing leanings that Kerouac was said to have in the late-1930s and early-1940s (see some of his comments in Vanity of Duluoz, for example). Or was he just trying to impress the girl who never got the letter?

Kerouac had spent some time in the Merchant Marine, though in what became part of a pattern he soon pulled out of any commitment in that line. The fact would be noted when he was examined by doctors and psychiatrists. He applied to be transferred to Naval Aviation, but failed to pass the necessary tests. After ten days basic training he was hospitalised, and was said to be “restless, apathetic, and seclusive (sic)”. Diagnosed as schizophrenic he rejected “authority, order, discipline, and structure”. The list of jobs he’d walked out of was cited as evidence of his reluctance to put himself in a position where anyone else could control what he had, or wanted, to do.

He knew that there were two sides to his personality, one his “schizoid side……the bent and brooding figure sneering at a world of mediocrities…….the inverted scholarly side, the alien side”, the other “the half-back-whoremaster-alemate-jitterbug-jazz critic side…..”.  And he seems to have delighted in, he claimed, feeding the doctors who examined him the sort of information they expected, even wanted to hear. They all appeared to think that his ambitions to become a writer indicated that he was delusional about his abilities: “Without any particular training or background, this patient, just prior to his enlistment, enthusiastically embarked upon the writing of novels. He sees nothing unusual in this activity”.

Interestingly, one of the books he had written around this time was The Sea is My Brother, which did eventually achieve publication, but only in 2011.

Kerouac was eventually discharged in June, 1943, “by reason of unsuitability for the Naval Service”, but did go to sea again in the Merchant Marine. Miriam Kleiman says that, following his departure from the U.S. Naval Reserve, Kerouac “spent the rest of his life running from structure, discipline, rules, regulations, and authority”. Some might add “responsibility” to the list, bearing in mind his behaviour in relation to other people, including his daughter. Hit the Road Jack will be a useful addition to the library of Kerouac studies for those who want to know more about this talented but obviously very complicated man.

Available from Beat Scene, 27 Court Leet, Binley Woods, Coventry, CV3 2JQ. The UK price includes postage. Make cheques payable to M. Ring.