When literary talent runs through a family, it tends to run through a single generation, like the Bronte sisters, the James brothers or the brother-and-sister Sitwell team. Less often is it handed down from one generation to the next, as it was in the case of Dumas pe re et fils. There are the Huxleys, of course, but they are simply a remarkable family whose talents are occasionally literary. Or the Alcotts; but in this case the father is remembered (except among scholars of Transcendentalism) chiefly because of his daughter.
A new trend may be signaled with the appearance, more or less simultaneously, of three books by daughters of variously eminent writers named Sheldon, Hotchner and Kerouac. Whatever the reason, heredity or environment, we seem to be entering a new age of literary dynasties.
Some of the elements in this process are probably environmental. In her acknowledgments, Mary Sheldon mentions the names of such publishing heavyweights as editor Jason Epstein and agent Morton Janklow, helpers not easily available to the average 1978 Wellesley graduate who has written a novel about a rock musician who commits suicide.
But in one case at least, that of Jan Kerouac, there has to be a heavy element of heredity. She did not even meet her father until she was 9 years old, and then only fleetingly, with no time or inclination for him to help her literary career. Curiously, Kerouac is the one who most obviously writes like her father, Jack -- a very loose-knit story whose style hovers close to banality, except in occasional passages of vivid description. The subject matter is also Kerouacesque.
"Baby Driver" is subtitled (on the dust jacket, not the title page) "A story about myself." The publisher calls it a novel, but it is written as autobiography, and some of the names in it are those of real, recognizable people. One cannot help hoping that some of the episodes are imaginary, as the heroine tells of her aimless growth from a grueling childhood on Manhattan's Lower East Side, through a promising start at an elite high school and then a plunge into '60s-style adolescent adventures with sex and drugs from which she may now be recovering. Kerouac describes the kind of fast-moving, nomadic life her father wrote about a generation ago, when the subject was still fresh. Men are abundant, beginning with Paul ("I was twelve and he was twenty-two") who introduced the heroine to sex and LSD and for the love of whom she endured the colorful torments of an insane asylum. The book, in the paternal tradition, seems as aimless as it is eventful. Browsers who pick it up by mistake, thinking that they have found a previously unknown Kerouac novel, will probably not be disappointed, though they may be confused to note that the narrator and heroine is a woman.
Tracy, daughter of A.E. Hotchner, comes the closest of the three to writing a traditional kind of first novel, full of what seem to be autobiographical scenes of domestic life in an affluent family. There is some melodrama in the plot, a mother stoically dying of cancer and a daughter whose dream wedding turns into a rapidly disintegrating marriage. Her story is reasonably well-written, staffed with believable characters and sometimes touching; not an outstanding novel but one that shows solid talent and potential for growth.
Mary Sheldon's novel is the shortest and seemingly the least ambitious of the three. On the surface, it is the simple story of Effie Daniels, an adolescent girl who gets a crush on rock singer David Angel, becomes the head of his local fan club and starts following him around from concert to concert, worshiping him at a distance -- a sort of groupie without intimacy. On the surface, the story is lurid and verges on the absurd: An unstable girl in the throes of puberty finally meets the rock star whose idealized media image she has worshiped. He is in the middle of a very bad drug trip and, in an act that is the logical consequence of a kind of insanity that has been building in his mind, he assaults her sexually, and ultimately this act destroys them both.
The book's skill is not in the story but in the telling of it, the carefully balanced symbolic and emotional overtones, the psychological perceptions, the implied commentary on what has been happening to the minds of a generation of Americans. The incidents of the story itself are simultaneously unbelievable and banal; such things do not happen, and they are the weekly fare of the tabloids you see at checkout counters.
Sheldon's triumph lies in the way she presents real people in these strange, extreme situations, tells their story from a variety of viewpoints and finds or implies significance in what has happened to them. In some respects, she is already a more interesting writer than her father, Sidney -- at least more interesting than his most recent book.
When novelists have daughters, according to the new trend, the daughters are likely to start having novels. But at least the process seems relatively free of Oedipal conflicts.