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August 17, 2004

I Knew I Wouldn't Be the Only Reviewer Who Hated It

by Ron Hogan

Ray Robertson tears into Paul Maher's Kerouac: The Definitive Biography. It's quite possibly the most negative review I've seen in a major publication this year, except for the one I wrote about Maher's book, a Publishers Weekly item you can read at Amazon: " less critical biography than gushing fan letter."

And that was when I was being kind. Robertson only attacks the sloppy writing, whereas I tear into the book's intellectually dishonest portrait of Kerouac, which offers limp excuses for his lifelong bigotry while mindlessly celebrating his prose style. Actually, "intellectually dishonest" may not be quite right, as it's quite possible Maher may be simpleminded enough to actually believe his own claptrap. (For the record, I don't mind celebrating Kerouac's prose style, though I personally don't care much for it; it's only the mindless celebration that offends me.)

Previous biographers come under heavy criticism, and though it's rarely stated outright, the main point of contention appears to be the possibility Kerouac had sex with other men. Maher rejects the evidence, accepting on its face Kerouac's claim to have slept with hundreds of women; presented with firsthand testimony from Gore Vidal, he dismisses the account as "sodomous."

Maher's lucky that's all PW approved of that passage; I was careful to point out that the word "sodomous" doesn't seem to exist, and that a high school English teacher ought to know enough not to make up words, or use words that do exist to mean things they don't mean, like writing "prevalent" when he should use "prominent." If more reviews keep pouring in, frankly, Paul Maher could well get his own "Bad, Bad Writer" designation; he's the first author I've seen since reading Lauren Slater who makes Slater look good.


Dear Editor, I am sorry I did not write the book that you wanted to read. However, it is a book and it is my thoughts and how I chose to express them at the time. Are there typos? You betcha . . . are there factual inaccuracies? of course . . is it intellectually dishonest? In all fairness, I don't think so. I chose to remain as close to the primary sources as I could without relying upon previous biographical material. As far as I can see, making factual errors is forgiveable compared to fabricating "fact" which seemed to be the case with a few of the Kerouac books still in print. I stand by my work (though a revised version correcting some of the typos and factual inaccuracies awaits in the trade edition). It is typical however that one as bitter and dead-ended as yourself will latch on only to a negative review and not the numerous positive ones that would balance out the merits to the demerits. Though I ask, where was the portion of your review that was remotely honest? Your slant in the review seemed biased and pointed more toward character assasination (hinting that I was somehow homophobic) instead of demonstrating your allegedexpertise as a trained critic. For example, the new material I unearthed about Kerouac's formative years in Lowell has been positively received by many who know and love Kerouac's work . . are you so steeped in your hatred for the genre that you instead lash out blindly with crass generalizations?
Lastly, and for the record, the "definitive" part of my title isn't mine, it belongs to the sales reps and marketing geniuses of my publisher who feel that misaligning one's work to sell books and make room on bookstore shelves counts more than reading the work and finding where the title of the work relates to the intended thesis.

Though I should regard your review as trite, I will respect it nonetheless. It is, after all, your opinion. Because the PW review was anonymous, I wondered who you were. Now that I know, I can forget you. Until you research and write a nonfiction book as extensive as mine, then I will respect your criticism of the research and writing process. Until then, keep polishing off your web page rants, it at least keeps you off the street.

Posted by: Paul Maher at August 18, 2004 01:01 PM
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