He was just 47 and, though married, still living with his mother when he died from complications related to alcoholism exactly four decades ago today. “Who was Jack Kerouac?” asks The Guardian’s David Barnett. “Not the best writer in the world, but a writer nonetheless.” A pretty mean assessment despite being uncomfortably close to the truth even for those of us who grew up reading On the Road, Doctor Sax, and The Dharma Bums—naïve works of literature that barely hold together and yet are nevertheless capable of rare lyricism. Kerouac was a strangely Canadian writer for an American—a kid of French Canadian stock whose parents fled rural Quebec for the factories of Lowell, Mass., where he grew up the high school football star before turning his hand to outsider fiction. Next year, as Barnett notes, a film version of On the Road is slated for release with Sam Riley, the actor who played Ian Curtis in the cheerless Joy Division pic Control, cast as Sal Paradise, the roman à clef’s Kerouac.