EMPTY PHANTOMS: Interviews & Encounters with Jack Kerouac

(Thunder’s Mouth Press Trade Paperback, 2005)

“This is definitely a book for Beat Generation junkies. Practically every printed, recorded, and filmed interview with Kerouac is collected in this 505-page book. You’ll even find Kerouac’s infamous military personnel file in which he was diagnosed with ‘Dementia Praecox.’” —San Diego Tribune

“There is just something about Jack Kerouac that inspires and has always inspired hatred or love. Nowhere is this more apparent than in articles about him and interviews with him. Paul Maher has assembled pieces ranging over fifty years, and his book Empty Phantoms is a revelation, even for those who think they are familiar with the biographical material. . . Maher, a very astute commentator, makes the central point about Kerouac as a subject for journalism, namely that he ‘committed the social faux pas of simply being too honest.’ . . . Perhaps the best piece in the book is John Clellon Holmes’s essay about Kerouac’s life and death, and his funeral, ‘Gone in October’—one of the best examples of elegiac prose in the language. It’s worth, as the saying goes, the price of the book. There have been more books published about Jack Kerouac in the past thirty or so years than about any other American writer. Yet he has not been well served by biographers. Empty Phantoms is the best thing yet produced. It’s as if Maher allows us to see Kerouac in the midst of a long battle, during which he never fights back, yet each sling and arrow helps reveal his peculiar genius.” —Jim Christy, Toronto Star, and author of THE LONG SLOW DEATH OF JACK KEROUAC

“In reading this book my image of Kerouac began to change from phony to idol.” —New York Press

“When did what writers say in interviews become at least as important as what they actually write? . . . The author interview, which has truly come into its own in the last century, might be best thought of as a literary genre with its tone, rhythm, and themes all as intentionally crafted as a poem’s or essay’s. . . . The recent publication of EMPTY PHANTOMS: Interviews & Encounters with Jack Kerouac, a hefty volume edited by Paul Maher, Jr., offers an opportunity not only to reflect on whether the author interview constitutes an actual genre of literary performance but also to experience immersion in a single writer’s oral tradition. . . . Interviewers, who had previously been mere ink-stained wretches, were now often well-known authors or journalists. Kerouac was quizzed by Ben Hecht, Mike Wallace, Steve Allen, William F. Buckley, Jr., and Dan Wakefield. . . . More like peer-to-peer encounters, these interviews tend to come off as real conversations rather than as staged performances. . . . To be sure, Big Questions were still lobbed at Jack Kerouac. Repeatedly called upon to answer for an entire generation’s cultural predilections, he proved to be an awkward if endearing spokesman for the Beat movement. He managed to sound cryptic and naïve at once, avoiding direct responses and sounding embarrassing notes of sincerity.” —Albert Mobilio, Bookforum


(Taylor Trade Hardcover, 2005; Taylor Trade Paperback, 2007)

Selected by Biography magazine and Vanity Fair for their “Hot Lists”

Finalist for Foreword Magazine’s Biography of the Year Award

“[A] thoroughly researched and worthy biography. . . . Kerouac is an engaging mix of anecdote and archive.Tales of ecstasy and despair, of drugs and drunkenness and poetry, are counterbalanced by Maher’s perceptive commentary and criticism. Kerouac himself comes over as a confused romantic perpetually in danger of self-destruction, a man driven by the twin demons of wanderlust.” —Times Literary Supplement

“Kerouac research was for decades limited because his personal journals were unavailable to scholars. That has all changed now that the New York Public Library holds the Kerouac archive, which forms the basis of Maher’s work. . . .  A useful piece in a difficult puzzle [that] sheds new light on a writer of considerable interest.” —Library Journal

“Unique among Kerouac biographers for his prodigious archival research, Paul Maher  Jr. tells a magnificent American story of a small-town boy who read books, created himself as a writer, and destroyed himself. Spot-check Maher for his rigorously chronological documentation, or, better, seat yourself for the whole inspiring, infuriating, appalling story which the ruthlessly non-judgmental Maher unscrolls (taking his hint from Kerouac’s famous roll of paper)—a long panorama of squalid literary settings thickly peopled by a gaudy, self-indulgent, yet profoundly literary generation and by a bewildered set of powerful editors, reviewers, and publishers.” —Hershel Parker, Pulitzer Prize Finalist and author of HERMAN MELVILLE: A Biography

“Maher was raised in the blue-collar neighborhood of Centralville where Kerouac lived four decades before. But back in the early 1980s, Maher’s teachers hardly mentioned the Lowell-born Kerouac. Maher has redeemed that hometown neglect with an insightful biography that chronicles the life, literary dreams, and sad decline of one of America’s most misunderstood writers. Representing a decade’s research, KEROUAC: The Definitive Biography uses the author’s letters, journals, and lesser-known writings to separate the private man from the public myth. . . . A thorough, readable, and balanced portrait, this book represents an important and impressive addition to a growing body of Kerouac scholarship. . . . Maher spent several years pouring over the Kerouac archive at the New York Public Library, transcribing handwritten letters and diaries, manuscripts and legal documents. More than most biographers, he scrutinized early writings from ATOP THE UNDERWOOD and denser later works, like VISIONS OF CODY, for clues to Kerouac’s lifelong preoccupations. Maher has found a ‘seriously flawed’ man but deeply humane artist who endured Promethean suffering trying to distill life into his novels. . . . Maher is at his best examining Kerouac’s poignant friendship with soulmate Neal Cassady whom he fictionalized as Dean Moriarty whose frenetic crosscountry travels fueled ON THE ROAD. . . . Maher neither avoids nor revels in Kerouac’s famous dark side. He documents in excruciating detail the ruinous consequences alcohol had on his writing. . . . As a biographer, Maher has concentrated on Kerouac as a serious writer rather than the popular image of a literary primitive intoxicated by purple prose and cheap wine. . . . Mixing sheer detail with a sympathetic eye to Kerouac’s foibles, Maher gives his subject’s final years a tragic humanity. His biography breaks new ground. Maher largely achieves an ambitious goal: he brings Kerouac to life as a fascinating but fallible man and artist who reflected and shaped his times. Like the many roads Kerouac traveled, it’s a worthy trip.” —Boston Herald and New York Daily News

“With enormous sensitivity and thoughtfulness, Paul Maher, Jr. captures the essence of Kerouac’s peripatetic life on the margins of American society. Maher brings together those curious personalities and bizarre places that made Kerouac an intensely complex man, perceptive writer, and, ultimately, cultural icon of the “beat” generation. This riveting biography is meticulously researched, vividly written, and a substantial contribution to American cultural history.” —Lester P. Lee, Jr., Professor of History, Northeastern University

“In the late 1950s and ’60s, you could divide young people pretty well by whether they liked ON THE ROAD. For some, it was a lot like the new rock ’n’ roll, a denial of traditional values. For those, Maher’s biography will be a surprise. Kerouac was born of a French-Canadian family in Massachusetts. A high school athlete, he read literary classics and studied at Columbia University under Mark Van Doren. After a stint in the Merchant Marine, he hooked his star to men like Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Neal Cassady. His was a hand-to-mouth existence of sexual voraciousness, heavy drug use, and a self-destructive lifestyle. But Kerouac’s dream of writing the great American novel never dimmed.” —Dallas Morning News

“Millions of readers all over the world can be overjoyed that a biography has been published that dispels the myths of the King of the beat generation and instead brings us the history of Kerouac himself, written in a heartfelt way that surely would have made Jack feel honored. Paul Maher has done the seemingly impossible. . . . He has written a truly definitive portrait, done with a purity of intent that shines through each page. . . . The dazzling amounts of new information, the priceless interviews with childhood friends, and quotes from many others who knew Kerouac during various phases of his later life make this book as hard to put down as the works of Kerouac himself.” —Composer David Amram, author of OFFBEAT: Collaborating with Kerouac and VIBRATIONS: Adventures & Musical Times

“In this methodical extensive biography the gory details of Kerouac’s life stack up. . . . The western world does not make writers like Kerouac any more, only pale pretenders.” —Gerald Dawe, Irish Times, poet and author of Heart of Hearts, The Morning Train, and Lake Geneva

“This Kerouac portrait captures the grandeur and grief. . . . A remarkably thorough work. . . . Maher succeeds on many levels and nails the advertised ‘definitive biography.’ Kerouac’s French Canadian roots are explored as far back as 1720 and his Lowell, Mass., childhood is as meticulously traced as the details of his death. [Maher is] a master biographer who reports without pretense or agenda.” —Charleston Post & Courier

“The virtues of Kerouac are its concise prose style, inclusion of unpublished work by Kerouac, and refutation of anecdotal material uncritically accepted and printed as fact by previous biographers. Sympathetic to its subject, KEROUAC stands with its predecessors as fit testimony to a tumultuous life.” —Burlington Free Press

“What makes Maher’s story of Jack Kerouac stand out from other Kerouac biographies is his factual tone and his reliance on formal evidence in recounting Kerouac’s life and making a case for his place in American letters. . . . The book should attract all who love Kerouac and all who wish to know more about his life.” —Smoky Mountain News (North Carolina)

“Just finished reading Kerouac and thoroughly enjoyed it. Indeed, it does clear up the distorted accounts of a life ‘particularly susceptible to agendas and animosity.’” —Donald Motier, author of GERARD: The Influence of Jack Kerouac’s Brother on His Life & Writing

“The artistic urges and carefree, reckless lifestyle of the 1950s Beat Generation is still most starkly and famously personified by the movement’s enigmatic, controversial patron saint, Jack Kerouac. Kerouac was a walking contradiction: hopeless alcoholic and brilliant poet; blazè womanizer and devoted Catholic. In this in-depth examination, Maher takes a riveting look at the forces that shaped Kerouac’s development into the original hipster artist, based wholly on a wealth of contemporary materials including letters, postcards, journals, and media accounts of the day.” —Smoke Magazine

“A substantial addition to Jack Kerouac scholarship.” —American Literary Scholarship

“I haven’t thought about Kerouac in a long time, but reading Maher’s biography has brought back his enormous importance to our literary history in the last half of the twentieth century.” —Laurel Speer, poet and author

“An outstanding Kerouac biography! Maher has accomplished a truly great piece of work.” —Stephen D. Edington, author of KEROUAC’S NASHUA CONNECTION

JACK KEROUAC’S AMERICAN JOURNEY: The Real-Life Odyssey of On the Road

(Da Capo Press Hardcover, 2007)

“Of interest to those deeply into Kerouac is Jack Kerouac’s American Journey by Paul Maher Jr., which retraces Kerouac’s steps and delves deeper into Kerouac’s other writing and influences, offering some noteworthy new insights in the process.” —Christian Science Monitor

“ON THE ROAD, celebrating its fiftieth birthday, may have been composed in a white heat. But, as Kerouac scholar Maher ably shows in this biography of the book and its author, it took years for that heat to build. . . . Smart and fast-paced; JACK KEROUAC’S AMERICAN JOURNEY is one of the better pieces to appear so far in this anniversary year.” —Kirkus Reviews

“This straightforward recounting of the travels that inspired ON THE ROAD attempts to fill in some of the gaps left by the already extensive chronicles of the famous beat’s life. Though no period of the beat time line has been more fully documented, Maher tackles the details with a clear-eyed objectivity that is refreshingly focused and relatively devoid of the spin that often plagues these endeavors. Maher draws on a wide range of sources, most notably some of Kerouac’s less read works such as VISIONS OF CODY, to gain insight into little-explored aspects of the writer’s personality. For example, while Kerouac’s Thomas Wolfe–obsession has been exhausted by scholars and biographers, Maher delves into Kerouac’s experiences with Dostoyevski and Tolstoy, and, on a related tangent, explores Kerouac’s Catholicism more comprehensively than most. Maher’s book also fulfills the promise of its subtitle by showing the reader how real-life events corresponded to the famous passages of ON THE ROAD, with Maher’s impressive research uncovering small gems like the appearance of a cowboy in a Colorado diner. Moments like these render this work another fine tool in the growing arsenal of the true Kerouac obsessive.” —Publishers Weekly

“On the Road is built on a sturdy autobiographical framework and fueled by Kerouac’s intense moral and religious questioning. In this detailed and insightful key to Kerouac’s tale of Beat pilgrims on a wisdom quest, Kerouac scholar Maher precisely maps the real-life journeys that shaped the novel’s odysseys, and matches each character to its real-life inspiration. On the aesthetic plain, he skillfully chronicles Kerouac’s Herculean efforts to channel his hard-won observations and visions into prose that emulated the work of his idols Whitman, Wolfe, Dostoyevsky, Balzac, and Charlie Parker. In the book’s most memorable passages, Maher writes incisively and resonantly about Kerouac’s profound attunement to ‘the sadness of the world.’” —Booklist

“In Jack Kerouac’s American Journey, a biographical study of the Road years, Paul Maher Jr. here provides a helpful, well-researched companion to the novels, with special emphasis on the actual trips and their transformation into fiction.” —Regina Weinreich, Washington Post Book World, author of Kerouac’s Spontaneous Poetics, editor of Kerouac’s Book of Haikus, and director of the documentary Paul Bowles: The Complete Outsider

“A sensible biographical guide.” —New York Sun

“Jack Kerouac was a self-centered alcoholic with an inability to commit and a seeming desire to fail. He was also a literary phenomenon who created a prose style based on bebop jazz, gave voice to the alienation created by industrial consumer society, and offered hope to those hungry for an alternative life based on awareness and art. Concurrent with the 50th anniversary of the publication of On the Road, Maher uses journals and letters, plus four fictional works by Kerouac, to show how his personal philosophy, lifestyle, real-life experiences, literary influences, and social context shaped his literary work from 1947 to 1951. Maher also strips bare Kerouac’s romanticized fictional image of Neal Cassady (Dean Moriarty in On the Road) and exposes him as the criminal con artist he was. Maher is no apologist for Kerouac’s own character flaws; instead, he examines them objectively to depict circumstances that led to a body of literature that has influenced three generations. This book best serves those who have some familiarity with Kerouac and are interested in learning how his experiences influenced his work. Recommended.” —Library Journal