The Awakener by Helen Weaver

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.

15 Responses

  1. Nobody’s Wife sounds worse
    Nobody’s Wife sounds worse than Ellis Amburn’s biography. Is Action Poetry working?

  2. It appears that Helen
    It appears that Helen Weaver’s memoir may be a very good piece of work. I intend to partake of its pages… Yesss! The world is so much different now. Time wounds all heals, and heals most wounds, and sometimes there is a little of both with scars left over. Writing memoirs is good therapy, don’t you know? Helps the scars to fade and brings enlightenment and/or catharsis.

  3. From your description, I
    From your description, I imagine Helen Weaver as well-balanced, cool, and intelligent. Much like when I met Hettie Jones and found someone whose life has progressed with a positive vitality since the 1950s.

  4. “A smart confidence underlies
    “A smart confidence underlies her bemused feminine understatement, and this book is a summation of a deeply thoughtful life.”

    Many of us lady-writers aspire to have such delicate and intuitive descriptions wound about our persona….. thank you for a hooking an honorable insight into Weaver’s memoir…….. goin’ on my xmas list…….

  5. sounds like a valuable
    sounds like a valuable addition to the women beat collection (i’ve got a shelfari group that needs her) – thanks, levi.

  6. I read The Awakener with high
    I read The Awakener with high hopes, which were mostly dashed. I’ve read all the women’s memoirs about their time with Kerouac and, with the exception of Joyce Johnson’s wonderful Minor Characters, they all seem to be the same book. Weaver actually spent little time with Kerouac, so the book is mostly about her life – and, it’s just not that interesting.

    The book apparently was never edited (a common problem now), so typos, misspellings, and other errors abound, which is distracting.

    Speaking of Joyce Johnson – I recommend that everyone read everything she’s written. She’s one of the finest and most underrated living writers.

  7. I hate finding typos in my
    I hate finding typos in my books, and it’s almost impossible to thoroughly proofread oneself. Maybe those hippies at City Lights will consider correcting the typos on future editions (it’s never too late).

  8. It’s funny, Dan, I didn’t
    It’s funny, Dan, I didn’t notice any typos or errors at all — that’s not to say there weren’t any.

    Carolyn’s “Off The Road” probably remains my favorite of this “series”, but I liked Helen Weaver’s book more than Joyce Johnson’s. I guess it really all comes down to personal taste, to which narrator’s personality you relate to more. Each of these books reflects the individual personalities of its author, and there’s no reason every reader should expect to relate to all of them.

  9. Dan, I’m not sure you read
    Dan, I’m not sure you read the same book I did, or maybe you read uncorrected proofs. I have a pretty good eye for typos and didn’t spot any. Do you care to point out a few or the typos and other errors you spotted?

    Our reactions to the book were quite a bit different too. I was pleased with how fresh Weaver made it all seem.

    Enjoyed your review, Levi.

    Dan B.

  10. Hey, wait. Doesn’t Joyce
    Hey, wait. Doesn’t Joyce Johnson have a son named Dan? Is that you, Dan? If so I can’t blame you for touting her work.

    Another book I’ll add to the list is Carolyn Cassady’s earlier memoir, Heartbeat. I liked it better than Off the Road. Short and sweet appeals to me.

    Dan B.

  11. I just became aware of this
    I just became aware of this discussion this morning. I’d like to thank Levi Asher for his insightful review and everyone here for taking the time to comment on it. As for Dan (non-Barth) who found The Awakener to be full of typos, misspellings, and errors, I would very much appreciate it if he could point them out, perhaps in a private email. (Boring!)

    Joyce Johnson’s Minor Characters is a masterpiece, and I’d be honored to be on the same shelf with it.

  12. Well, all this talk of typos
    Well, all this talk of typos and misspellings and errors inspired me to go back to the book and check my notations. When I read a book for review I typically mark any errors I find, and in “The Awakener” I found no typos or misspellings and what I consider to be a single factual error, on page 200, when she says that Jack Kerouac made up the narration to the film “Pull My Daisy” on the spur of the moment. He may have been putting together the words on the spur of the moment, but I’m pretty sure he would have been reciting the text of his unproduced play “The Beat Generation”, which “Pull My Daisy” was based on.

    I have a pretty good eye for factual errors (just ask the folks at the New York Times Book Review, who are sick of me), so if I could find only one error in this entire book, that’s pretty damn good. If anybody finds any others, please let us know. Otherwise, I think the charge is unfounded.

  13. Are there any quotes from
    Are there any quotes from Jack Kerouac’s books in The Awakener? If so, then maybe someone mistook Jack’s unique prose for typos.

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