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Book Review: The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac

The Voice is All by Joyce Johnson

The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac by Joyce Johnson is a comprehensive biography of Jack Kerouac. Johnson’s articles have appeared in The New York Times MagazineNew YorkThe Washington Post, and Vanity Fair. Johnson for a time was Kerouac’s girlfriend and a member of the inner circle of the beat movement.

I like Kerouac’s work. I really do, but I didn’t always. Many years ago I found myself at Big Sur and felt compelled to run to the closest bookstore and buy a copy of Big Sur. It didn’t take long for me to put the book down. A few years ago a friend at work, knowing I read often, asked me if I read any Kerouac. I said I tried but couldn’t get into it. He said he had the same problem until he heard Kerouac read. The secret, he said, is to read it in “beat.” I gave it a try and it made a world of difference. Since then I have read all Kerouac’s major works, and he has a spot on my bookshelf. 

Once I was fully into Kerouac’s work, I dabbled into Ginsberg and Burroughs. The same friend that told me to read in beat brought me a copy of Minor Characters to read. It was also written by Johnson. When I was asked how I liked it I replied honestly. I didn’t like it it seemed too much like someone who felt cheated in history, despite her association. To be fair, I decided to give her another try with “The Voice is All.” 

To her credit, Johnson writes an extremely detailed biography. Having access to the Berg Collection in New York Public Library, Johnson had a wealth of knowledge not usually available to the public. Kerouac’s childhood is covered in great detail especially his French-Canadian background. All the major players are covered as well as their histories. Even Ginsberg setting Kerouac and Johnson up on a blind date has its part. There is a tremendous amount of information in this book and all of it very detailed. That may be part of the problem I have with the book. Kerouac reveals a great detail about his life in his books. Johnson does not contradict Kerouac, but just goes much deeper into details. There is a point where a book begins to cross the line from being informative to becoming a scholarly dissertation or thesis. Biographies generally keep the reader interested with the subjects life, adventures, or accomplishments. Scholarly work presents detailed information that generally doesn’t hold everyone’s interest, most that I have read and written would only hold the interest of a few. Generally it has a much smaller audience, but much greater detail. Johnson seems to be on this path; rich in detail, but dry to the average reader. I found her style to be informative but not compelling to read though cover to cover. 

A casual fan of Kerouac’s work may find The Voice is Allintimidating or a bit more than they expected. To the person needing or wanting to know every detail of the man’s life, this book may be for you. I will keep it as a reference. There is some really great information contained in the pages of The Voice is All, but I doubt I will read it cover to cover again. A great deal of credit is given to Johnson for compiling such a tome. What it lacks in captivating reading it makes up for in information


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