Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Book Review: LOOKING FOR JACK KEROUAC by Barbara Shoup

WARNING: This week’s book is actually edgy YA and is filled with adult content. It's absolutely not appropriate for younger readers and adults should view it as the equivalent of an ‘R’ rated movie.

First Paragraph(s): IT WASN’T DUKE WALCZAK’S FAULT that I took off for Florida, like Kathy thought. The truth is, we started getting sideways with each other on our class trip to New York and Washington D.C. nearly a year earlier—which, looking back, is ironic since she was the one dead set on going. 
Not that I wouldn’t have loved to go…anywhere, especially New York, if I could have gone on my own and just wandered, searching for the places I’d read about in books. But I didn’t like hanging out with big groups of kids at home, so why would I want to hang out with them in New York? And, believe me, two days of lockstep sightseeing once we got there didn’t change my mind about that. Not to mention our tour guide talking us senseless, determined to tell us every single thing she knew.

It's to be a more mature YA novel this week, Esteemed Reader (it's got F-bombs and N-bombs, so be warned), if that works for you. Barbara Shoup has long been on my to-be-read pile as there are only so many Indiana authors publishing young adult  and I like to read stories about my state I didn't write to see how it could be done better:) Next week we'll be chatting about It's A Wonderful Death by fellow Hoosier scribe Sara J. Schmitt. I've seen John Green around town, but haven't been able to ask him one question, let alone seven of them, and Kurt Vonnegut so rudely expired before I started this blog (though I did get to see him read), but otherwise I intend to feature as many Indiana authors as I can. It restores my faith in my state and makes up for the many adult Hoosiers who don't even have the good sense to appear properly ashamed when they tell me they don't read.

Looking for Jack Kerouac starts out in East Chicago, Indiana in 1960s, but naturally, it becomes a book about a road trip. What else can we expect from a book that invokes the author of On the Road and has classic cars on its cover? This is a trip you want to take, Esteemed Reader, and one I'm sorry to have finished so soon. I absolutely loved this book. I loved that it never condescends to its reader or attempts to patch a solution onto a situation for which there isn't one and I love that its honest and eloquent in its execution.

Paul Carpetti is in a period of transition many of us older readers will remember well. He's just graduated high school and now he's faced with the big question: what next? His mother has died just before the start of the novel and his girlfriend has moved to take her place as much as possible. She's got plans for Paul to be her husband and father of 2.5 kids with a home in the suburbs and all the rest of it. Paul simply needs to show up to work at his dead-end job, put his brain on autopilot, and everything will simply fall into place for him.

Naturally, it's time for him to get out of town. His reasons for needing a road adventure are myriad, but number one on his list is the love of a great novel, which makes him my kind of protagonist:

I wanted like Sal wanted, too—I didn’t even know what I wanted. I just wanted. Maybe everything. It was like an ache sometimes, that wanting. I never mentioned it. There wasn’t a single person in my life who’d have understood, even if I had been able to explain it—and I doubted I could. But lost in the pages of On the Road, I felt like…myself. Like the book knew who I was, knew what I wanted, and was speaking back to me somehow.

Actually, it Paul's new friend Duke Walczak I most identified with. He's got a head full of "dangerous" new ideas, the makings of a future alcoholic, and a dream of being a writer. Paul's girlfriend sees Duke for what he is from the start: trouble. The story is a bit hard on old Duke, and to be fair, he's cruising for a bruising, but I felt more of a kinship to Duke as he reminded me of a foolish young Ninja I once knew many years ago:) Duke's the one who learns Jack Kerouac is hiding out in Florida through an obituary listing and his motives in seeking out the great writer are far less altruistic than Paul's, though I personally found them more relatable:

“It’s all there, ready to be made into the Great American Novel,” he said. The main character, Duke himself, was going to be named Jack Bliss, he said—Jack, of course. I was in it, too. Rocco Minetti. 
“Rocco Minetti?” I said. “That’s idiotic. Jesus. Don’t name me that.” 
“Rocco Minetti,” Duke repeated, firmly. “My book. My characters. You’ll like it just fine when you get famous because of it. Like Kerouac’s buddies did.” 
“Yeah, right,” I said. 
“You think that won’t happen? Hey! Put your money on it, man. It’s been ‘mutely and beautifully and purely decided.’ What I’m going to write in those Big Chiefs, starting today, will make Jack Kerouac look like old news.” 
“If you think that, how come you’re so hot to find him?” I asked. 
“To pay homage, man,” he said, indignantly. “To stand before him and, you know, get his blessing to carry the torch.”

The fellas hitchhike their way south, along the way encountering interesting people such as a sexy mermaid (a performer in a tail, not Ariel) in a convertible sports car who likes to party. And there's another girl later in the book, who may or may not be of particular interest to our heroes, and a certain famous writer who may or may not put in an appearance, though it would be spoiling to tell. Given that his name is in the title, it would be sort of weird if Jack Kerouac didn't show up, but maybe it's just a weird book--I'm not going to spoil it:)

One of my favorite of Paul and Duke's many encounters is a trucker named Bud:

“You got a truck, you got a rolling motel room.” He gestured over his shoulder, to a built-in bed between the seat and the back window. 
“You’ll notice, the wife even made me up some nice throw pillows.” He winked. “I’m going to tell you something, boys: In addition to all its other benefits, trucking is the secret to a happy marriage.” 
“How’s that?” Duke asked. 
“Simple,” Bud said. “You’re gone a lot, you see the world. You romance the occasional lady who doesn’t expect anything but a nice steak dinner and a few drinks for a roll in the hay. So you come home and find out the wife’s gone overboard with the Sears Roebuck catalogue? It’s a small price to pay to dodge the nine-to-five grind, coming home to tuna casserole, whiny kids, and mowing the grass every Saturday morning. There’s damn good money in it, too—if you can put together enough to get your own rig.”

What a charming fella that Bud is:) But the boys don't buy it:

But when Bud dropped us at a truck stop a few miles south of Clarksville and pulled into the truckers’ parking lot to sleep, Duke shook his head and laughed. “Poor old Bud. He thinks he’s got it knocked, but he’s just kidding himself. His leash is just longer than most other guys’, that’s all.”

Looking for Jack Kerouac is a fascinating read and worthy of closer examination, which I intend to give it, the way I might re-watch a magic trick in slow motion to catch the magician at work. One of the things I like about Bud is even though I wasn't alive in the sixties, I've met him. I've heard a similar spiel from truckers. But I picked his passage in particular because I believe its an example of Barbara Shoup at work. 

Thematically, marriage is shown again and again throughout the novel as a force of coming unhappiness (better throw up an example), the likes of which I haven't encountered since Revolutionary Road:

I flipped the TV channels for a while, coming up with nothing but moronic shows that only housewives would watch, which reminded me of dinner at Kathy’s house the night before. Mrs. Benson falling all over herself re-filling my plate of meatloaf, making sure I was happy in every possible way in between nagging Mr. Benson to death about chores that, if you listened to her, had to be done ten seconds after dinner was over, or the whole house was going to fall down around us. The sheepish grin Mr. Benson cast my way when she wasn’t looking, as if to say get used to it, buddy, a few years from now this will be you.

Paul's reason for skipping town in the first place is to avoid being herded into marriage. As I read, I couldn't help but notice the absence of any strong female characters except the conniving girlfriend and the overall picture painted of females is not particularly positive until late in the novel. I found myself thinking of how the female writers in my critique group would come after me if I turned in such a manuscript, and here this book was written by not-a-dude:)

But as usual, I was missing the point and was later amused to find myself genuinely challenged by a clever story. After all, the world is presented to us from the limited perspective of one Paul Carpetti. Barbara Shoup may or may not be a marriage enthusiast, but Paul has reason to fear marriage and women. It was a woman who hurt him and he's so very, very angry:

I was done feeling guilty about having a little fun, I decided. Seriously. I was so frigging tired of doing the right thing. Where had it gotten me? Where did it get my mom? Or my dad, for that matter? He was nuts about Mom, he treated her like a queen, and all he got was a broken heart.

If you're the sort of reader who needs to be spoon fed, Looking for Jack Kerouac may not be for you. But if you yearn for a more adult story about a young adult coming of age, Barbara Shoup has crafted a rewarding tale I'm glad to have read and am looking forward to rereading. 

I should end my review there as it's really long, but I can't finish without commenting on Shoup's treatment of history. There's a bit of nostalgia for an era gone by--isn't that the fun part of reading a Jack-Kerouac-themed road trip novel? But it's tempered with an unblinking view of that world as it was:

“Y’all do not want to be hitchhiking down through Georgia at night,” he said. “Niggers around here have gone plumb crazy.” 
“I’m not afraid of Negroes,” Duke said, stressing the correct pronunciation. “I’ve got friends back home who are Negroes.” 
“This ain’t the North, son,” Darnell said. “I got nothing against them myself—and it ain’t so much them you got to worry about, anyway. You know what happened to them friendly white boys in Mississippi this summer, don’t you? You want to end up like that?” 
Duke shrugged. But I’d read about shootings and lynchings by the Klan and by the police, too, who were likely to assume that two guys obviously from the North, like Duke and me, had come down to cause trouble, as they saw it.

It would've been perhaps easier to give us the 1960s lite, but less honest. Kudos to Shoup for having the courage to report the facts, including the rebellious ideas that were brewing in the citizenry. Duke has his suspicions that the Gulf of Tonkin was "a big scam to crank things up over there" in Vietnam and he suspects that maybe, just maybe, Oswald had help executing our President. You know I'm a conspiracy nut, Esteemed Reader, and I've told you Duke is the character I liked most. But it's quite something to see those events through the eyes of someone who lived through them and knew his government was lying to him. It shapes a very different view of history than the one we're taught in schools. Thank goodness all of that happened in the distant past and in no way impacts our present life.

In conclusion, Looking for Jack Kerouac is a terrific book to be enjoyed by readers of all ages:) Find your way back here on Thursday to see Barbara Shoup face the 7 Questions, and if you happen to be in Indianapolis around Central Library on Saturday at 2:00pm, stop by to see her, me, and Shannon Alexander, among others. As always, I'll leave you with some of my favorite passages from Looking for Jack Kerouac:

You couldn’t be halfway married any more than you could be halfway dead.

“Yeah, I was scared. So what? Hemingway said courage is being scared and doing the right thing, anyway. Did you know that?” 

“Hemingway blew his brains out,” I said. “What kind of courage is that?”

I walked slowly, weaving a little, stopping to look in the window of a souvenir shop or listen to music drifting out from the other honkey-tonks. The bars were mostly set up like Tootsies, with a band in the front window. Framed by the open doorways, people writhed in the neon light, looking weirdly like the pictures of hell the nuns showed us in grade school to scare us straight.

“Jack Kerouac. The writer. He lives here, in St. Petersburg. Me and my buddy here, we’re looking for him.” 

“Writer. No, I don’t know any writers. G.D. Reds, most of them.”

A guy at a nearby table glanced up from the newspaper he was reading. Disheveled, unshaven, not quite clean, he looked a lot like the guys we’d seen in Morris Park the day before. There were others, too, their heads bent over books or newspapers, their dirty green army surplus duffels at their feet—and it occurred to me that whatever had deposited them in this place, rootless, without purpose, might have seemed like a grand adventure at the start.

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: All reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own. 


  1. Have you ever read A Girl of the Limberlost, a historical fiction set in Indiana near the edge of the Limberlost swamp and the fictional town of Onabasha? Keep in mind it's a classic, a coming of age story and has some romance, but there are some wonderful descriptions of the nature in the area around the swamp. And the author, Gene Stratton Porter, hails from Wabash County, Indiana.

    1. Hi Brenda! Thanks for the recommendation. Since it's coming from you, I know it will be a good read. I'm moving it up my TBR pile.


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