Jan/Feb 2010  •   Reviews & Interviews

...a bit of a misfit like me...

Review by Gilbert Wesley Purdy

The Awakener.
Helen Weaver.
City Lights Books. 2009. 262 pp.
ISBN 9780872865051.

"I was sitting on the john in my pajamas," writes Helen Weaver, in the opening line of her book, The Awakener:

...when the buzzer rang. It was seven o'clock on a Sunday morning in November 1956...

Ms. Weaver has worked in both large and small scale publishing companies, over the years, and has translated over 50 books from the French. Although she has not been an author in her own right until this book,—with the exception of two self-published titles—she knows how to write a solid declarative sentence and the uses of suspension of narrative.

As the reader can not help but suspect, the buzzer will introduce Jack Kerouac. As is the case throughout The Awakener, Weaver's description of their first meeting will amount to straightforward reportage lightly seasoned with personal detail:

Suddenly our tiny and rather barren living room was teaming with life. The studious-looking one in the horn-rimmed glasses with the dark curly hair, whom Helen introduced to me as Allen Ginsberg, was obviously the leader. He introduced in turn the beautiful young man with the sad Russian face as his lover, Peter Orlovsky; Peter's tall, silent brother, Lafcadio; and the not very tall but dark and absurdly handsome one, Jack Kerouac.

Ten pages later, Jack and company are napping on the living room floor and the reader has securely taken the hook such that other interesting characters may safely be introduced: primarily Helen Weaver herself and her roommate Helen Elliot.

Helen Weaver escaped a cookie-cutter Scarsdale life by entering into a cookie-cutter middle class marriage after graduating from Oberlin College. Three years later she escaped the marriage by experimenting with lesbian relationships, divorcing and moving to Greenwich Village where she met Helen Elliot and the two gloried in going around in pageboy haircuts smoking cigarettes. They painted the floor of their makeshift apartment black, and, there being no kitchen sink, did the dishes in the bathtub.

In the process she met poet Richard Howard:

Even though Richard was gay and I was female and not gay—at least not totally—he courted me. There's no other word for it. That was Richard's style, and mine too, come to think of it. If you're a bit of a misfit like me there is a thrill to finding a major new friend that is so intense it's almost sexual...

Her friendship with Howard led to meetings with the likes of Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Hardwick and some familiarity with John Hollander (who would pan Ginsberg's Howl and live to regret it). While the name dropping by no means ends here, the trait is, as always, far more welcome than readers and reviewers are generally willing to admit.

Some 30 jam-packed pages later, Weaver returns to the subject of her time with Jack Kerouac. Jack had arrived at her apartment because Allen Ginsberg had known her roommate, Helen Elliot, since she had been Lucien Carr's girlfriend when the boys had attended Columbia University together (Elliot attended Barnard).

Helen had already filled me in on Lucien's lurid past. He had spent two years in prison for the manslaughter slaying of a homosexual admirer who had been stalking him for years, but she had assured me that Lucien had acted in self defense... Lucien Carr was a blond beauty with slanting green eyes and high cheekbones... He was charming, too—witty, sarcastic, a brilliant talker and a devout drinker and hell-raiser whose Bible was Rimbaud's Une Saison en enfer. In short, a devil.

Allen felt confident that he could set Jack up with one of the two Helens, if only they had the chance to meet him, and he was right. Jack found himself with a roof over his impoverished head and a lover, a talent of his second only to writing. Not only that, but the roof was across the street from his favorite hangout, the White Horse Tavern.

Weaver's description of Carr also foreshadows the end of her relationship with Jack:

Cessa [Carr's wife] was very gracious, but I could see that she was not particularly thrilled that Jack was back in town... While Lucien had cleaned up his act to the extent of holding down a steady job at the wire service United Press International, he still had a wild streak and Jack and he had a way of egging each other on...

By page 90 she has grown tired of the late night partying at the apartment. She has a job and is arriving to work mornings exhausted. Jack and Lucien burst in to interrupt her sleep once too often:

On the evening of Monday, January 14, [1957,] I asked Jack to leave.

I hated myself for doing it—felt pompous and self-righteous and ached for his dazed face that couldn't look into mine.

They had lived together for two months, more or less. Jack would get in touch with her from time to time, over what years he had left—generally when he wanted to get back together. She had better judgment than to try again. Jack had not yet become The Awakener for her.

In the remaining two thirds of The Awakener Helen Weaver dives-in to try to have obscenity charges dropped against the comedian Lenny Bruce (who also will briefly become her lover), and, failing, helplessly looks on as he is found guilty and drugs himself to death. Jack passes away but she chooses not to attend the funeral. As street crime increases in Greenwich Village, she moves back and forth, now living in Woodstock, New York, now in Connecticut, where she tends her mother over the course of a long terminal illness. She continues to translate books from the French for modest sums and collaborates with Susan Sontag on Antonin Artaud: Selected Writings (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976). The book is short-listed for the National Book Award for translation.

Amongst all of this, she begins to read Jack Keraouc's novels, and, it seems fair to say, falls in love with him again. At the end of a personal journey through various alternative spiritual systems, she decides to explore Jack's beloved Buddhism:

When I tried to talk about our problems he would just say, "Everything is fine, don't worry, it's all a dream!" I thought that was a load of crap. So at that time Buddhism—at least Jack's version of Buddhism—was my enemy.

But as I aged, and especially after my father died, I began to accept the idea of life as tragic... At age sixty Jack's mantra that "nothing is real, it's all a dream" began to make perfect sense to me.

Allen Ginsberg sees Jack's biography of the Buddha—Wake Up!—through the press and the respect for Kerouac among the Buddhist community is a frequent topic of conversation. It is considered a shame, amongst her teachers, that he had no teacher of his own to help him find his way to true Buddhist enlightenment. Weaver decides that "Whether Kerouac was fully awake or not himself, for many others he surely served as an awakener."

In the mid-1980s, Weaver begins visiting his hometown, Lowell, Massachusetts, now and again. She is soon visiting the Village, as well, to be interviewed in situ for various biographies of Kerouac and the Beats and attending conferences (sometimes as a panelist or otherwise participant). Old friend Allen Ginsberg weaves in and out of her life encouraging her to finish her own memoir of her time with Jack.

The names that pass through these years make it clear that Helen Weaver is still living an unusually rich life. Khenpo Rinpoche, Thich Nhat Hanh, Gerald Nicosia, Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Ed Saunders, Dan Wakefield, Jan Kerouac (Jack's abandoned and tragically short-lived daughter), Carolyn Cassady, Barney Rosset: the list goes on and each is portrayed with at least a few hurried brush strokes. Bob Dylan even makes a cameo appearance.

Not long after Jack Kerouac died, in 1969, a publishing industry sprang up around his name and that of the major Beat players. The most recent ramification of that industry has been the publication of the memoirs of many of the women who shared Jack's life. These have turned out to provide some of the most human portrayals of Jack, have told us how he smelled, how he felt to the touch, how he tasted, how he made love and much more.

Surprisingly, they have also turned out to provide an exceptional portrait of women at the cusp of the feminist era. Each of these memoirs is a record, as well, of the lives of the women that wrote them and those lives are interesting, and affecting, in their own right, even if it wasn't yet the time that they themselves could become the main character in the dramas going on around them.

Helen Weaver had an adventurous streak that would not let her stay in Scarsdale or married. She was an intelligent and rebellious young woman whose wonderfully understanding father bank-rolled her, from time to time, yes, but who generally felt the need to make her own way. The old protestant work ethic and a facility in translating from the French supported her through the Beat and Hipster phases of New York's Greenwich Village and left her with exceptional experiences, friendships and publishing credits of her own.

Added to those credits, now, is The Awakener: a memoir which a reader may cherish first because it recounts a life book-ended by two relationships with Jack Kerouac. But that reader will find Helen Weaver's remarkable life engaging, in its own right, as well. It is the story of a talented and spirited young woman growing up in the thick of her times.


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