Say Jack Kerouac and you think the ultimate American road trip, but the writer’s ancestral roots actually lie in France and in 1965 he went looking for them. By that point Kerouac was a raging alcoholic. In Paris, he began days with a beer and a cognac, by evening he had deteriorated into a teetering lecher, so drunk even the prostitutes wouldn’t have anything to do with him. Occasionally, he ducked into libraries to glance through genealogy books, but the scholarly environment and ban on smoking—even the books themselves—seemed to fluster him. A low point came at the office of his French publishers, where Kerouac was completely ignored: “Seeing the sinister atmosphere of ‘literature’ all around me and the broad aint gonna get my publisher to buzz me into his office for an actual business chat, I get up and snarl…” He left Paris for Brittany, in northwestern France, where somewhere in the soggy countryside was, apparently, a town bearing his family name.
The whole saga is recorded in one of the last books Kerouac ever wrote, Satori in Paris. But the wind-whipped Kerouac I remembered from burning through On the Road at age 15—the same sort of one that’s portrayed in Walter Salles’ recent movie adaptation—is long gone. In his place is a spastic drunk that more resembles an over-the-hill frat boy than a cultural icon. The mission to find kicks no longer seems sublime, just sad. What struck me when I found the book last winter at a wonderfully overstuffed Paris book shop was not the occasionally crackling language or barroom anecdotes but the nature of the mission itself. Had a profiteering publisher merely sent him on the errand, did he just want to sleep with French women, or was Kerouac actually trying to decipher some profound aspect of his identity? I bought the book and two days later purchased a train ticket to Brittany.
As I zoomed through the French countryside, snug in the reclining seat of my near-empty high-speed train car, I opened Satori and rejoined Keroauc. He had booked a flight from Paris to Brest, a port city in far western Brittany, but missed the plane because he was in the bathroom. Unfazed, though now without a suitcase, he took the train, sharing a crowded compartment with a French soldier, a Catholic priest, two pleasant old ladies and “a weird looking drunklooking guy in the corner.” Of course, he and Kerouac made fast friends. They headed to the bar car and drank four bottles of rosé wine. In Rennes, the drunklooking guy got off, Kerouac bought a flask of cognac. He shared the rest of the ride with a young couple and their crying infant, sipping cognac and staring out the window. Brest was grim and foggy and Kerouac continued drinking. He meandered the streets in search of a hotel but instead wound up at another bar. By night’s end he was in a police station.
But the Brest police didn’t arrest Kerouac, they called him a cab. The driver took him to an inn where he slept for a few hours then was woken by the clatter of pots—“anyway I can’t sleep and where’s my cognac!” Still without a suitcase, he brushed his teeth with his finger then went down for breakfast and ordered a beer. At a bar around the corner, he got the cognac—“on the first sip I shudder to miss what I missed all night”—then proceeded to get in a fight with a mailman. Moments later he was at the airport, looking to fly to England. Only there were no flights for several days. “Right then a gleam comes in my eye as I think: ‘It’s Saturday morning, I can be in Florida in time for the funnies at dawn when the guy placks ’em on my driveway!’”
Florida? That doesn’t sound like a Kerouac sort of place. But at the time he was living in a small house in Orlando with his mother. And so there it is, the mighty Kerouac traveled to France to find his roots, drank himself into a series of stupors and rushed home to read the comics. You begin feeling bad for Kerouac. The boozy womanizing thing can only go so far. Youth lets a writer flick off the world, and sometimes it even makes for exceptional writing, but you get just one On the Road. After that there are two options, stop writing and disappear, a la Rimbaud, letting your work stand as a pure but narrow tongue of fire, or progress along with your ideas. I’m not sure Kerouac ever did.
“I really hate to write,” he says in a 1968 Paris Review interview. A few sentences before, he gives advice on how to write a story: “You think out what actually happened, you tell friends long stories about it, you mull it over in your mind, you connect it together at leisure, then when the time comes to pay the rent again you force yourself to sit at the typewriter, or at the writing notebook, and get it over with as fast as you can.” One begins to see that it’s not so much writing he hated, but editing. Kerouac didn’t synthesize, he just unloaded. And so one finishes Satori with the main questions entirely unanswered. Why did Kerouac decide to find his French roots? And what’s really there to find in the first place?
I got off the train in Pont-Aven, where Gauguin spent the summer of 1886. My mission was haphazard; walk the length of western Brittany, asking innkeepers and bartenders if they remembered a wily drunk American writer named Jack. That night a winter hurricane roared ashore, forcing me to hole up in a salty motel in Concarneau—neither the bartender nor any of the sailors, seated at the bar in bright red foul-weather gear, had heard of Kerouac. The next morning, I walked through Fouesnant, Bénodet and Combrit, where I came across an astonishing lead. Posted on a message board was a flier for a talk about Kerouac’s Breton roots. In an even more ridiculous twist of luck, the event, to be held in the community center in Sainte-Marine, a town I had just passed, happened to be that evening.
I arrived in Sainte-Marine early and went to the bar, where I met the town dentist, a lean man with wolfish sideburns and a strange welt on his forehead. Unlike anyone else I had spoken to in Brittany, he knew all about Kerouac. Inspired by On the Road, the dentist had taken a series of epic motorcycle trips though India and the Himalayas in the late 1970s. “In India you can sleep on the street,” he told me excitedly. “Or sometimes behind the teashop.” We drank Heinekens and talked about traveling, and why we do it, and the weirdness of the world, and the importance of seeing it. The dentist handed me a tiny silver figurine of a stooped old Japanese man walking with a cane, Bashō, perhaps, on his journey to the north. Then he finished what must have been his fifth Heineken and went back to work.
The talk was in French and I understood nothing. But afterward the speaker, a journalist in corduroys named Herve Quemener, and co-author of the book, Jack Kerouac, Breton d’Amérique, relayed to me the gist of the story. At the turn of the 18th century there was a hardworking Kerouac from the Breton town of Lanmeur with a set of fine children, save one delinquent son. This troublemaker had inappropriate sexual contact with a neighbor’s daughter and was duly banished. He headed for the New World and in 1720 and landed in French Quebec, where he married and had two sons. Those two spawned the 5,000 Kerouacs presently living in North America, Jack’s line. In the New World, the initial Kerouac had lied about his origins, throwing genealogists off track for decades, but a French historian named Patricia Dagier—Breton d’Amérique’s co-author—had put the pieces together. This was no easy task. As she later explained to me by email: “I have made research about Kerouac roots in France and also in Canada. 12 years long !!! From 1996 to 2008. Reading all archive document with magnifying glass. And thinking about Jack Kerouac and his ancestor every day…and every night.”
On a day with weather that shifted between brilliant sunshine and dark clouds that spat sleet, I walked to Lanmeur. It was a rough old town, many homes were made of stone and most of the people were in the bars. “Ker” means farm in Breton, and signs on the outskirts of town indicated I was getting close: Kergonan, Kerilly, Kernevez, Kerizov, Kerognurt, Kergolva, but still no Kerouac. I asked directions of an innkeeper with orange hair and a black dog, she pointed me down the road, repeating, “Kerouac, Kerouac.” I walked on, through bright green lettuce fields and into the open countryside. Inside a roundabout where French road D64 met D786 were scraggly bushes and an unkempt lawn. From it rose a blue highway sign that read: “Giratoire de Kervoac”—Kervoac Roundabout. This was the proof Kerouac had been looking for all along. I took some photos and returned to town. In Bar Tabac everyone was watching horse racing. I ordered a beer and a cognac for Kerouac’s sake. When I asked folks about him, I got blank stares. No one knew who the man was.
I still call On the Road the most important book I’ve ever read. It showed me that you don’t have to live the life set out for you, that you can juke and waver, making the rules up as you go along. But looking back now I see how much Kerouac actually missed in life. The spontaneous prose that moved the country may really just have resulted from his inability to think through his own thoughts. Kerouac invented a style that ensured he would never have to face his weaknesses as a writer. And in that we see an odd sort of irony: the man who lived more freely than anyone had barricaded his own mind. With no way to push forward, it’s no surprise he slid backward.
“It’s hard to decide what to tell in a story,” wrote Kerouac. “I always seem to try to prove something, comma, about my sex…It’s just that sometimes I get terribly lonely, for the companionship of a woman dingblast it.”
Justin Nobel is the author of “Standing Still in a Concrete Jungle”. He’s presently at work on the second book in his Places trilogy, a shamanistic travel guide to the American South.