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9 Lupine Road

April 21, 2021

“The best teacher is experience and not through someone’s distorted point of view”
― Jack Kerouac, On the Road

The birthplace of Jack Kerouac is at 9 Lupine Road in Lowell, MA, an ordinary brown house built in 1900 and which was already divided into apartments at the time he was born there in 1922.

Eric D. Lehman’s new novel 9 Lupine Road is subtitled “A Supernatural Tale on the Tracks of Kerouac,” and the author, a former student, sent me a copy, saying that he thought it would be right up my alley in terms of my interest in the supernatural in fiction. Well, it is. The book is very tightly packed, and part of the fun of reading it is unpacking as you go.

Lehman’s novel begins with a distorted point of view, a framing narrative by a man who describes himself as the son of a werewolf. The very first sentence tells us that “the werewolf’s favorite novel was Big Sur by Jack Kerouac.” So from the start, we see that the narrator is unreliable. He’s telling us a story of the supernatural in a way that makes it seem ordinary, even sordid, and he is consistently self-congratulatory about what he considers to be his clear-eyed view of his father: “he left my mother before I was born. My mother kept no pictures, and so I had nothing to create a false memory. That was right of her to do.”

The author has the narrator, Dominick, give us an imitation of Kerouac’s “spontaneous prose” style, framed as the ramblings of his father, Rupert Plain. Dominick says “they are a jumbled mess, hours and hours of rambling memories and incredible lies.” Although it’s clear to readers that what his father says is a good imitation of Kerouac’s style, Dominick seems to line up behind what Capote said about it, that it’s “not writing but typing.” What Dominick (who we later find out works for the FBI) says he wants from prose is a story told “simply, cleanly, and professionally, a criminal report, if you like.” After asserting that as he told the story he “tried to keep his nonsense to a minimum,” Dominick admits that he occasionally refers to his father as “the werewolf” because “it is easier than writing ‘my father.’”

As a reader, you are intended to see the distortions from the very beginning. How they grow is fun to watch, and what is revealed is as much about Dominick as about his father. Describing a college photo of his father, for instance, he is critical of the shirt he is wearing: “this was long after the sixties, and the tie-dye was a commercial knockoff, with a print of dolphins sandwiched among the colors. He thought it made him look ‘authentic’ in some way, though I’ve seen the same shirt in several films of that era.”

Rupert had “a complex-sounding poetic philosophy that justified a wandering lifestyle,” Dominick explains, adding that it “probably let him live with his guilt after leaving my mother.” As far as we can tell there is no guilt, but Dominick continually insists on looking for it.

After trudging through the telling of what could have been an exciting story about how Rupert was turned into a werewolf by a stranger at a campfire in the middle of a wilderness area, Dominick sounds childishly disapproving when he says “instead of going north to the hospital at Salt Lake City to get the throbbing, suppurating wound on his wrist taken care of by a qualified professional, he drove south.” At every opportunity, Dominick takes the mystery and romance out of everything, even a werewolf bite. He focuses on petty details about the circumstances of Rupert’s life, at one point specifying “I’m not sure what the difference between a stripper who satisfies the client and a prostitute really is” in order to conclude, for the reader, that “you can see right away what type of person Rupert was, and no werewolf bite gives him the excuse that he so desperately wanted me to believe.” It’s clear that the desperation is all on Dominick’s side, especially as his tale goes on.

Maybe Dominick learned by example, or maybe his m.o. has always been accusing the other person of doing what he is himself guilty of doing, but the scene when he leaves his girlfriend shows how oblivious he is to his similarities to his father:
“I had two weeks of vacation coming up from the Bureau, which my girlfriend Janie and I had marked off for a trip to the Bahamas. We had been together for nine months, and she had helped me through one of the most difficult times in my life. I thought she would understand immediately why I needed to cancel the trip and go to see my father….
‘What do you mean, you have to cancel?’ She said shortly, her usually plump lips tightened into a thin line. ‘We’re leaving in six days; I’ve already asked off from work.’
I stammered through my explanation a second time—I had found my long-lost father, and before he disappeared, I had to talk to him.
‘But why do you need to use our two-week vacation Why not just go up there next month, on a weekend?’
I didn’t understand this obtuseness and tried to get across that I had to see him now, and I wanted the buffer time just in case.
‘In case of what?’
I hemmed and hawed again, avoiding answering this directly, and today it seems a strange need. I remember that I had some weird ideas about how the whole thing might go down, elaborate fantasies about redeeming him in some way, a tearful confession, a stern and disciplined step-by-step process of learning to love again. No fantasy could have been stranger than reality, and the decision makes sense only through hindsight—I had plenty of time to hear the whole story and ask hundreds of questions.
After stomping around for a while, she sniffed. ‘I could come with you…’
‘No, I have to do this alone.’
‘Are you sure?’ Her voice crackled.
I had never been surer of anything, but I pretended to waffle for her sake. It didn’t work.”

Later, in case anyone could have missed the way Dominick lies to himself, we get a little recap of his similarity to Rupert when he addresses the reader directly, saying “maybe you caught it—how easily he lied. It made me sick to my stomach, and I didn’t know why until later that evening, back at the crooked cabin, after a disappointing telephone exchange with Janie.”

As his tale goes on, Dominick’s fantasies continue to grow. He tells his readers that his father believed Jack Kerouac was a werewolf and elaborates on this, saying that his father believed Kerouac’s “’alcoholism’ was a metaphor for the lycanthropy that afflicted him. And since werewolves apparently replicated by biting other people, perhaps he was actually ‘related’ to Kerouac by an intricate series of attacks over the decades.” Then Dominick weaves his own fantasy into what he labels his father’s fantasy:
Perhaps, he dared to hope, the drifter who bit him had been bitten by Kerouac long ago. In this way the writer became a father of sorts, a family that he never had, as he put it so callously and stupidly to me. He had a real family: whatever his father’s faults, his mother had loved him, and I was already born and living in my grandmother’s house in the District. But as many people unfortunately do, he created a fantasy family, a genealogy that allowed him to connect himself to the man who had given him a reason to live. Now, years later, he denied that he retained this ‘crazy’ idea about Kerouac being ‘related’ to him, but kept his theory that the writer was in fact a werewolf. It amounted to the same thing.”

There’s an amusing moment when Dominick tells us about why he thinks his father found the address of the house where Kerouac was born, 9 Lupine Road, symbolic: “lupine, as you know, means wolf-like, though more likely the street had been named for the eponymous flower rather than a wolf den. This could not be coincidence. It was fate, or intention.” Dominick pretends to protest but relates that “the triumph in my tone would have led a listener to suspect that I was the one trying to prove the theory.”

It’s no surprise that when Dominick talks about reading Kerouac he says that his favorite is On the Road, “since it was essentially about two young men searching for lost fathers.” Thinking about the friendship between those two young men, however, prompts him to tell a story he thinks is about law and order and readers may think is about his lack of loyalty to anyone who gets in the way of his own desires.

As he wraps up his tale, Dominick has moved into madness, as defined in terms of seeing the world differently from the way everyone else sees it. He says that “I used to think I was the most honest man I knew—I would repeat it like a mantra. But working for the F.B.I. made that impossible. Soon I used dishonesty so that the greater truth, the law, was protected. Then, when I met Rupert I had to pretend more and more.”

All this “pretending” allows Dominick to work himself up to a final act of cruelty. When Rupert asks “who are we if not a blend of all we ever read?” Dominick is dismissive, saying that Kerouac’s books are “about running away” while Rupert argues that “they are full of hope, of longing, of possibilities.” What Dominick finally does puts an end to possibility. He thinks he wants everything laid out in black and white, like Stanley Kowalski at the end of A Streetcar Named Desire, and he will crush what he sees as everyone else’s illusions in order to get what he wants.

Sometimes a tale of the supernatural is about monsters. This one is about a character who meets someone he describes as a monster and tries to ignore any revelation about who the monster really is.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. April 21, 2021 12:34 am

    I‘m a sucker for unreliable narrators. I guess that Gene Wolfe has changed my literary preferences forever.
    Can it be that the narrator is the werewolf himself?

    • April 21, 2021 7:36 am

      It’s definitely told by a son of a werewolf. Which is not to say that it isn’t told by a monster.

  2. Lemming permalink
    April 21, 2021 11:13 am

    Could I borrow this? (Speaking as a classmate of Eric’s….)

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