WHAT HAPPENED LATER by Ray Robertson (Thomas Allen), 327 pages, $29.95 cloth. Rating: NNNN
Something's happened to Ray Robertson. And that something is Jack Kerouac.
I've been left cold by Robertson's previous fiction, but What Happened Later, a ripping riff on Kerouac and what he means to a fictional character named Ray Robertson, is wildly effective.
Robertson gives an account of the beat author's alcohol-fuelled trip to search for his roots in Montreal in 1967. Kerouac's a complete wreck - bitter, burnt out and just two years away from drinking himself to death.
The author interrupts that story with episodes from Ray's teenage years in Chatham, where the adolescent Doors fanatic desperately seeks a copy of On The Road to feed his Kerouac obsession.
One of the ironies here is how a teenager can be smitten with a writer whose essential work he's never read. Robertson highlights that gap between fantasy and reality - and pursues his theme of deluded hero worship - by showing us a Kerouac who is nasty, racist, anti-Semitic and hopelessly in love with America. In doing so, he sets the record straight for anyone who imagines this beat bum was the catalyst who took America from the 50s to the 60s counterculture.
Robertson wisely resists the temptation to mimic Kerouac's prose style - rambling sentences questionably punctuated and obviously designed to outrage literary purists - and instead gives us a clear-eyed tale of how a genuine talent gets utterly wasted, in all senses of the word, and another one grows.
The title refers to the name of the book Kerouac was supposed to write but could never finish. But while the story's a bit sad and Kerouac's downright pathetic, it has a huge amount of humour and heart.
The year marks the 50th anniversary of the publication of On The Road. We'll doubtless be seeing tributes galore, but I can't think of a better one than this.