There are many different ways to write about Jack Kerouac and I was beginning to think the world has very nearly seen all of them. But Barbara Shoup is one of my favorite YA writers, she has surprised me many times in the past, so when her new book Looking for Jack Kerouac came across my radar, I very much wanted to give it a look. As it turns out, in the hands of the right author, the Kerouac story still has some legs.
In 1964 Paul Carpetti is on a senior class trip to Washington DC when he picks up a copy of On the Road at a used bookstore. He reads it almost obsessively while in the city and all the way back to Indiana. Kerouac blows open everything Paul has thought about his future. As he graduates and gets a job at the local mill and his longtime girlfriend raises expectations about a pending engagement and marriage, the dream of the road becomes bigger and bigger. When a co-worker suggests they go find Kerouac in Florida, Paul jumps at the chance and they are off.
Shoup does a good job of chronicling the adventure south, some of which is quite harrowing and other parts involve sexy mermaids ala Weeki Wachee (where I have been and is totally awesome) (although, of course, I did not enjoy the sexy mermaid bits when I was there with my father and brother).
When the guys arrive in St. Petersburg they get a room at the YMCA and set out to find Kerouac. He, of course, is not at all as he was during the days of On the Road and after a confrontation with this author and his disappointed companion leaves, Paul finally, no longer traveling, sets out find himself which was probably the point all along. (And what On the Road is all about as well.)
There is a lot in Looking for Jack Kerouac about growing up; it is probably one of the better books I have read about deciding the life you want to live as opposed to the one that you seem destined to have. Paul is lost like every other high school graduate and even though he comes from a loving home he has no idea what he really wants or how to find something different from what he has assumed he would always have. In Florida on his own, as he gets to know Kerouac through good moments and bad, he makes other friends and begins to embark on the unlikeliest of futures. It's not all laid out, in fact the book ends with him mostly just deciding where he wants to live and the people he wants to be around, but it's exceedingly hopeful. Shoup gives readers a real Kerouac and real confusion; she makes clear that On the Road, like every other novel is just a story and not at all the full life of the man who wrote it.
I should also add that Shoup has two intriguing female characters in Looking for Jack Kerouac: Paul's girlfriend Kathy and the girl who befriends him in Florida, Ginny. Kathy seems in many respects to be a caricature of the early 60s woman; she is still on the path to marriage and family that he mother walked before her and determined to build a perfect home for Paul that will, she firmly believes, satisfy both of them. She is bewildered by the change in him after the senior trip and Shoup takes special care here, not making her a joke. Kathy had no reason to think that Paul would want something different; he never led her to believe that he would and so when he leaves her so abruptly for his road trip it's a major blow and one he deservedly feels a lot of guilt for later.
As to Ginny, she is the girl of the tomorrow. Surrounded by a boisterous family in St. Pete, she spends much of free time out on the water in her father's old boat doing research as she pursues a marine biology degree. Ginny wants to change the world and while she likes Paul, Shoup does not sell them as a couple. His reasons for staying in Florida are his own and not because he has gone from one girl to another. Ginny is a possible future, but no guarantee and what comes next for them would be anyone's guess.
As historical fiction, Looking for Jack Kerouac is a great ride. It's an authentic look at an American author who fought his own demons until the end and a young man who chose another path to facing his.