In a 1958 letter sent from Florida, Jack Kerouac wrote, “That black sweater of mine I always sleep in . . . crackles and bristles in New York, here it doesn’t.” Several years earlier, the “electrical vibrations” of New York had driven Kerouac to manufacture a new kind of American storytelling, “concerned above all with the poetry of what he remembered.” There were jolts of energy in Kerouac’s famous novel, “On the Road,’’ but his method reached an apotheosis in groundbreaking works like “Visions of Cody’’ and “Dr. Sax,’’ nearly killing him in the process.
That New York period of heavy drinking, bursts of insight, and frequent mental anguish experienced by the Lowell native between 1946 and 1951, when he achieved the breakthroughs that secured his reputation, forms the crux of a new Kerouac biography by Joyce Johnson, an author of eight books, Kerouac’s girlfriend in the late 1950s, and the recipient of the letter quoted above. Undercutting the influence of Neal Cassady, the garrulous antihero of “On the Road,’’ Johnson shifts the emphasis to Kerouac’s French Canadian heritage and his painstaking movement away from conventional fiction, toward something “beyond the novel . . . into realms of revealed picture.” These revelations have allowed Kerouac, a self-described “sheepish imbecile,” to slip past some more celebrated peers into the literary canon.