Written by Joe Scotchie Friday, 11 September 2009 00:00
Fenton, who is the author of Jack’s Last Call: Say Goodbye to Kerouac, a play dramatizing Kerouac’s final night in Northport, has been in the news lately, this time making the rounds in Kerouac’s stomping grounds in Queens County.
From 1943 to 1949, Kerouac lived with his mother in Ozone Park, where his writing career had gotten off the ground with the 1950 publication of his sprawling first novel, The Town and the City. That novel was written under the influence of, among other writers, Thomas Wolfe, but Kerouac was now searching for a new, more authentic voice, a struggle that culminated in the writing and publication of On the Road.
In a recent interview with longtime New York Daily News columnist Denis Hamill, Fenton pointed out the significance of the borough to Kerouac’s literary development.
Kerouac, Fenton related, completed the manuscript of The Town and the City in Ozone Park. As important, the journey in On the Road had its beginnings in that southeastern Queens neighborhood. In the early 1950s, Kerouac, one day, took the A train from its Rockaway Boulevard stop to Manhattan, where after getting lost, he ended up in Port Authority before catching a bus to Chicago on the way to Denver to meet his fellow traveler, Neal Cassady. In On the Road, Cassady is the model for the Dean Moriarty character, while Sal Paradise is the fictional stand-in for Kerouac.
From 1950 to 1955, Kerouac lived further west, in Richmond Hill. There, Kerouac, after occasionally meeting his Beat Generation friends in Manhattan, would retire to Queens to continue his writing. In 1951, he completed the manuscript of On the Road in a three-week writing binge. However, he failed to find a publisher and so began his wilderness years. On the Road wasn’t published until 1957, but Kerouac remained active. Fenton said that Kerouac’s years in Queens were his “most prolific years as a writer.” In Richmond Hill, Kerouac wrote Book of Dreams, Maggie Cassidy, a novel about his high school sweetheart, and The Subterraneans, a novel that he dashed off on a three-night burst of writing.
Fenton chronicled Kerouac’s life in Queens to not only Denis Hamill, but also to Audrey Sprenger, who operates a website, The Nomad Motel. Fenton took Dr. Sprenger on a tour of Richmond Hill, where he noted that Kerouac and Neal Cassady enjoyed playing pick-up basketball games at a park then called Smokey Oval Park, but now named Phil Rizzuto Park in honor of the Hall of Fame New York Yankee shortstop who was also a native of Richmond Hill. The basketball games with the hyperactive Cassady were chronicled on the pages of On the Road.
In all, Kerouac’s life in Queens remains generally unknown, as the author is more identified with his Lowell, Massachusetts hometown and such haunts as New York City’s Greenwich Village and San Francisco’s City Lights bookstore.
Hamill, apparently forgetting Jimmy Breslin, dubbed Kerouac “arguably the most celebrated writer to ever live and work in Queens.” But that doesn’t mean the county has always returned the favor. Fenton lobbied a former borough president to place commemorative plaques outside of Kerouac’s two Queens homes, the basketball court in Richmond Hill, and a library where he did research for On the Road. However, the politicians, as Fenton told Hamill, “didn’t want to memorialize a drunk.”
In 1996, Fenton did convince the county’s Historical Landmark Preservation Center to place a plaque on the building where Kerouac began writing On the Road. However, the plaque was stolen sometime in 2008 and the Queens Historical Society is contemplating replacing that one with a Queensmark citation.
Kerouac achieved celebrity status with the publication of On the Road. Although he badly needed the money, Kerouac disliked living up to the cult status as a spokesman for the Beat Generation and so, he moved further east, this time out to Northport.
Kerouac lived in Northport from 1958-1964. It is at a pub in Northport that Fenton’s play has its own setting. The play dramatizes Kerouac’s last night in Long Island, before traveling south to St. Petersburg, where he would die, at age 46, in 1969. The play stars Drew Keil as Kerouac, Ed Dennehy as Neal Cassady, Jack O’Connell as Leo Kerouac, Sue Anne Dennehy as Kerouac’s daughter Jan, and Len Caribou as The Reporter.
Jack’s Last Call was last produced on Aug. 2 at the Castello di Borghese Vineyards on the North Fork of Long Island. It has been staged at various locations on Long Island and in Boston and Lowell, plus as a radio play on more than 50 public radio stations across America.
Furthermore, the play is beginning to capture numerous awards. It has won a 2009 World Bronze Medal for Best Drama Special from the New York Festivals Radio Programming Awards. In addition, it has received an Award of Excellence for Drama from The Communicator Awards. This past May, the play was nominated for an Audie Award from the Audio Publishers Association. Finally, it has received a first-place Zeitfunk Award for director/producer and a third-place Zeitfunk for Most Licensed Piece, which is given to best-selling programs.
Despite its success, Hamill believes Jack’s Last Call deserves even more recognition. “It [the play] begs for an Off-Broadway production,” a notion that Pat Fenton and the play’s cast would certainly not object to.