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  • Jean-Louis began to write his novel in French. Jean-Louis did not learn to speak English, his second language, until he was six years old. Jean-Louis, like many a man, wanted to return to his first language as he aged, to return to his earlier writings, in French.

    The French Jean-Louis spoke and wrote in was French-Canadian French, which sounds in the inner ear and to the listener nothing at all like French from France, or anywhere else. You might be able to read it, but not understand a single spoken word if you moved, say, from Paris to Quebec City, let alone where Jean-Louis' parents hailed from, Saint-Hubert-de-Riviere-du-Loup, up the Saint Lawrence River valley.

    His parents called him Ti Jean. Little Jean. Ti Jean Kerouac was born in Lowell Massachusetts, where his parents like so many rural Quebecois went to find jobs, jobs in the factories, jobs in the mills, jobs making communities of French-Canadians who became Franco-Americans the often looked-down-upon French working class of New England.

    One day in summer I was surfing the TV on a hot August afternoon. Our basic cable comes with a couple of national French channels. So, there on Radio-Canada was a man who looked like a longshoreman or a lumberjack being interviewed. There were bookshelves in back of him. He was a dish, gorgeous in a hunky kiss-curl recognizably Quebec kind of a face. His utterances and iterations were pure joual, the slang of French Canada.

    I turned my head sideways as I always do when someone is being interviewed in front of bookshelves. What was this strange handsome guy reading....? But I could not take my eyes off his face and he had a certain, yes, je ne sais quoi.

    Well, knock me over with a two by four. It was Jack Kerouac!

    All these years, and I had never heard nor seen Keroauc speak French. It was a major lightbulb situation. It was an epiphany. It is one thing to know the biographical details, a kind of vague fog, oh yes of course his parents were French-Canadian. It is quite another (quite another) to see the man, to view the man, to hear the man, to see how at home he was, to see: Jack Kerouac was every inch Jean-Louis.

    Jack was in fact Ti Jean.

    I did not know that Kerouac started to write "On The Road" in French. That he wrote it in Quebecois slang. You might have to be Canadian to comprehend how you,---- thinking such thoughts, having such knowledge,----might make it mandatory for someone to call the fire department to put out the flames on your head.

    (I did not know, then, what scholars have since discovered: Jack Kerouac was among the first novelists, ever, to have used colloquial French-Canadian slang in a novel.)

    After I saw that black and white interview that summer, I had to re-read major chunks of Kerouac. It so happened that his letters had just come out, and various portable readers of his work. And so it came to pass that my time in New Orleans, working on my novel, "Love Street," and imbibing the Crescent City through my skin, and my re-reading of "On The Road," all coincided.

    And there it was: in the novel, Sal and Dean make their way down south. They come to New Orleans. They do not make base camp in New Orleans proper, but in Algiers which is a ferry ride across the Mississippi River. Jean-Louis wrote of the smells, the hum, how Dean and Sal were listening to the Jazz 'N Gumbo radio, and how they drove their car onto the Algiers ferry. And the book proceeds with Algiers as the fount of their New Orleans adventures.

    When I was in New Orleans, I knew I had to take the ferry across to Algiers. Because of Kerouac, Algiers had gained mythological status for me. I knew nothing about it. It was a working class area, a modest area, non-touristic, deeply local and on the Algiers ferry I felt like I was on a long journey away from Jackson Square, the French Quarter, the Aquarium, the European visitors in summer buzz.

    Algiers surprised me. It seemed deserted. I know it was summer, but still. Almost nobody was around and about. There were a lot of deserted buildings, buildings for sale, things boarded up. When life is tough before the flood, it can look like the aftermath.

    This is a photograph of a deserted Algiers movie theatre.

    But all the time I felt Jean-Louis, little John, Ti-Jean, walking with me and I heard him speak his home nasal Canadian French. And when I got back on the ferry to cross the Mississippi back to New Orleans, I saw him. Yes I did. I saw him, his exact double, in facial genes and jeans, leaning over the edge. In a white shirt and dark hair and those dark enthralling eyes, I know I saw the reincarnation of Jack Kerouac looking over the railing of the ferry from Algiers, that day.

    I recited to myself on the crossing as I do right now, what I believe to be one of the greatest and most beautiful sentences in American literature, from "On The Road,"----:

    "We saw New Orleans in the night ahead of us with joy."

    (Photo by Susan)
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