Desolation Angels


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'One of the most true, comic and grizzly journeys in American literature' Time Desolation Angels is the wild and soulful story of the legendary road trip that Jack Kerouac took before the publication of On the Road, told through the persona of Jack Duluoz and accompanied by his thinly-disguised Beat cohorts Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso and William Burroughs. As they hitch, hop freight trains, walk and talk their way across the world, from California to Mexico, London to Paris and on to opium-ridden Tangiers, ...

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May 22, 2019

Loneliness And Restlessness On Desolation Peak

After reading the memoirs of Helen Weaver 'The Awakener: A Memoir of Kerouac" and Joyce Johnson (Glassman) "Minor Characters", I wanted to read Kerouac's novel "Desolation Angels". Kerouac had a short relationship with Weaver in 1956 followed by a longer relationship with Johnson. In "Desolation Angels", Kerouac describes his relationship with these women from his own perspective. There is much more to the book.

"Desolation Angels" is the most literally autobiographical of Kerouac's novels, with the author frequently only slightly changing the names of his friends and supporting characters. The book covers about one year in Kerouac's life, from the summer, 1956, to late 1957, just before the New York Times published a favorable review of "On the Road" which took Kerouac from obscurity to fame. The book is in two large sections (called "books") written at different times and in different styles. Kerouac wrote book one titled "Desolation Angels" in 1956-1957 shortly after the events it describes. The book is written in the spontaneous, associative stream-of-consciousness style that characterizes Kerouac's best-known work. It was rejected for publication in 1957.

In 1961, when Kerouac was in the middle of a long decline, he wrote the second book of what became "Desolation Angels", titled "Passing Through" while living in Mexico. Kerouac's writing in this second book, which includes his relationships with Weaver and Glassman, is more straightforward narrative than in the first book. Kerouac thought of publishing each part as separate works but decided to combine the two together. The result is "Desolation Angels" first published in 1965. The current edition of the book, which dates from 1995, begins with a valuable introduction by Joyce Johnson.

In the summer of 1956, Kerouac worked for two months in western Washington in isolation on a fire tower on Desolation Peak. Kerouac thought he would be able to use this period of isolation for meditation and gaining control of his life. He soon found himself, however, missing friends, companionship and every day activity. Kerouac reflects on his surroundings, on his family, and on his earlier life in short, stream-of-conscious sections before he comes down from the mountain to rejoin the world. A sense of religious and philosophical meditation, which includes a great deal of Buddhism, also pervades Kerouac's discussion of his time on Desolation Peak and the novel as a whole.

The remainder of book one describes Kerouac's descent from the mountain and hitchhiking through Portland to San Francisco. He spends a riotous week with his friends in the middle of the San Francisco Poetry renaissance, but the best scenes are of Kerouac and his friends having fun and walking the streets. Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsburg, and Gregory Corso, with slightly changed names, play important roles. The sense of dissatisfaction and the need to move on, whether alone on Desolation Peak or with friends, is critical to Kerouac. Unhappy in San Francisco, he sets off for Mexico.

The aptly titled "Passing Through", book two of the work, describes Kerouac's continued restlessness, spiritual questioning, and dizzying journeys to Mexico, New York City, Tangiers, France, back to New York, California, and New York again. When he wrote "Passing Through" in 1961, Kerouac was famous.. He was seriously troubled by the faddish attention given to the so-called "Beat Movement" which he had not intended to create. In "Passing Through", Kerouac describes how "On the Road" is accepted for publication, but he makes relatively little of this.. In many places, Kerouac addresses his readers directly and intimately. Thus, early in book two he cautions his readers:

"And also dont think of me as a simple character-- A lecher, a ship-jumper, a loafer, a conner of older women, even of queers, an idiot, nay a drunken baby Indian when drinking--- Got socked everywhere and never socked back (except when young tough football player)-- In fact, I don't even know what I was-- Some kind of fevered being different as a snowflake....In any case, a wondrous mess of contradictions (good enough, said Whitman) but morefit for the Holy Russia of the 19th Century than for this modern America of crew cuts and sullen faces in Pontiacs--".

The scenes in Mexico City, with Bill Burroughs in Tangiers, and particularly with his mother in a long, disastrous trip to California are as good as the scenes with Weaver and Johnson.

This book captures a great deal of Kerouac and his contradictions. It shows a man who loved and tried to savor the common experiences of life, his friends, lovers, and food, and yet suffered from an inner loneliness and restlessness. Wherever he was, Kerouac felt he had to be somewhere else. Alcoholism and drugs and wandering inexorably took their toll. The story is told in "Desolation Angels" with strong religious overtones. The spirituality in this book is complex and unsystematized. It includes Buddhism, Catholicism and simple living in the here and now but does not reduce to any formula. I found the spiritual quest theme of this book challenging and moving.

"Desolation Angels" is a difficult mixed book, with eloquent writing together with portions that are less successful. The work gradually won me over as a read into it. This book will be of greatest interest to readers with a strong passion for Kerouac who have read, for example, "On the Road", "The Dharma Bums" and "Tristessa". These three novels are all available in the Library of America's excellent volume of Kerouac's "Road Novels". "Desolation Angels" itself is not included in any LOA volume of Kerouac.

Robin Friedman

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