Nineteen years ago, a French translator and one-time publishing industry insider began writing a memoir of her time as Jack Kerouac’s girlfriend in the mid 1950s. Helen Weaver had been affectionately immortalized by Kerouac (who, of course, wrote about every significant person in his life) as Ruth Heaper in Desolation Angels. Weaver spent a long time preparing her side of the story, and in the meantime many of Jack Kerouac’s other lovers published memoirs: Off The Road by Carolyn Cassady, Minor Characters by Joyce Johnson, You’ll Be Okay by Edie Kerouac-Parker, Nobody’s Wife: The Smart Aleck and the King of the Beats by Joan Haverty Kerouac.
But The Awakener by Helen Weaver turns out to be worth waiting for. When the book begins, Weaver is a cheerful editorial assistant at Farrar Straus whose parents wanted to spoil her with luxury and good manners, but who instead chose to spoil herself with wild experience, cheap wine and bohemian style. She meets Jack Kerouac about a year before On The Road made him famous, and is immediately knocked out by his good looks. They bond easily but she can’t endure his alcoholic inconsideration and eventually kicks him out of her apartment, at which point he hooks up with Joyce Johnson and the book’s direct connection to Kerouac ends. But the story goes on: Weaver becomes briefly involved with Lenny Bruce, works with Susan Sontag on a groundbreaking edition of Antonin Artaud’s poetry, finds peace as an astrologer, Buddhist and occasional activist. A smart confidence underlies her bemused feminine understatement, and this book is a summation of a deeply thoughtful life.
Some facts that surprised and pleased me as I read this book: that the original Broadway cast recording of Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady played a big role in Weaver and Kerouac’s romance; that both Kerouac and Lenny Bruce, despite their much-documented excesses, managed to be sensitive and tender in her presence; that as a respected literary translator Weaver made it a game to find a way to place the title of a rock and roll song into every book she produced. The primitive rock and roll scene of the mid-1950s is a touchpoint for Weaver’s life, and for her book: she was in her early 20s when Elvis Presley hit the scene, and most of her peers were too sophisticated for the new fad. Weaver, pointedly, was not.
The Awakener includes a funny later scene at Allen Ginsberg’s apartment with ethnomusicologist Harry Smith, and an enjoyable account of the 1994 Beat Conference at New York University, where she reunited with many of her former friends and rivals for the last time. There’s also much commentary on Buddhism, the Beat religion, which she only comes to accept later in life but seems to understand well.
The Awakener (the title refers indirectly to Kerouac’s posthumously published Buddhist text Wake Up) is also valuable for calling attention to the often forgotten novel in which Weaver is fictionalized. The five Jack Kerouac novels that form the great core chronology, in my opinion, are On The Road, Subterraneans, Dharma Bums, Desolation Angels and Big Sur. Desolation Angels may be the most life-affirming of all Kerouac’s works, and The Awakener nicely echoes this all-embracing and positive tone.