January 17, 2008


Capote in Kansas: A Ghost Story. By Kim Powers. Carroll & Graf/Da Capo. $25.

Jack Kerouac’s American Journey: The Real-Life Odyssey of “On the Road.” By Paul Maher Jr. Thunder’s Mouth Press/Da Capo. $16.

      The pursuit of literary figures of the recent past is a touch ghoulish for anyone not actively engaged in it. The idea of rooting around in the lives of authors to dig up this minor fact or uncover that small truth is, if not unseemly, certainly of very limited interest. Kim Powers’ fascination with both Truman Capote and Harper Lee, with both In Cold Blood and To Kill a Mockingbird, is what led him to create Capote in Kansas. Powers’ work will be of interest only to others sharing his twin obsessions – those who enjoy Capote’s and Lee’s books as books will find little to engage them here, and those fascinated by one author but not the other will not find much to attract them. Nevertheless, Powers’ approach is a fascinating one, and for those who do share the intensity of his (admittedly narrow) interests, Capote in Kansas will be a fine ghost story of the read-by-the-fire-on-a-cold-night type. Powers casts the book as a novel, not a memoir, and this is precisely what gives it its power. He imagines a lot of communing with the dead by both Capote and Lee, who were next-door neighbors in childhood and whose influence on each other was undoubted but unmeasurable. Lee was Capote’s assistant as he researched and wrote In Cold Blood, but the two subsequently had a falling out and stopped speaking to each other. Powers’ conceit is that they continued to communicate – that Capote sent Lee a series of mysterious packages in the last decade of his life, and that the two shared secrets under the prodding of the ghosts of the Clutter family, whose murder Capote had explored in his book. There are many, many things in Capote in Kansas that never happened, from Capote and Lee bar-hopping together to Capote calling her from his deathbed to make a final confession. And the use of ghosts is a device that becomes creaky after a while – doubly creaky, since Powers also has Lee involved with them, in a sense, by writing letters to her dead brother. Known elements of the writers’ lives flit through the book alongside invented ones, and only a true aficionado of both Capote and Lee will know which is which. But then, the book is really written for such aficionados, for only they are likely to care about Powers’ unusual combination of highly specific facts about the writers with overarching fiction about their relationship.

      Jack Kerouac’s American Journey is written as history, not fiction, and is not as interesting a book as Capote in Kansas. But it has the advantage of being as factual as Paul Maher Jr. can make it. Maher has made a career out of Jack Kerouac, writing his biography and editing a collection of interviews with him. Those not immersed in Kerouac scholarship may wonder what all the fuss is about; so may those who have read On the Road and, having read it, had little additional concern with the story of how it came to be written and who the person who wrote it really was. These interests, though, are precisely the ones that Maher has, and Jack Kerouac’s American Journey is written for people who share them. It is an insider’s look at an author who was a self-professed outsider, focusing on Kerouac and other members of the so-called Beat Generation as they traveled, argued philosophy and wrote. And wrote and wrote – much of the book is based on letters, notebooks and journals. On the Road is 50 years old now, and its continued relevance to anyone other than scholars of the mid-20th century is debatable. More debatable still is the value of exploring the details of the lives and personalities of the people who were in Kerouac’s orbit as the book was created. It takes a certain fanatical devotion to Kerouac and the Beats to analyze their world to the extent Maher has done. Only those who share the fanaticism will want to join Maher on Jack Kerouac’s American Journey.

1 comment:

  1. Wait until you read my book on Melville and the making of Moby Dick!

    I write these books because I love archival research, not out of some extreme statement of fanaticism.

    Thanks for the coverage! :)

    Paul Maher Jr.
    Fitchburg, MA.