Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Brendan Behan - After the Wake

Brendan Behan was a mid-20th century Irish writer, and another great example of drink-sodden Irish literature. Even better, he reminds me of Bukowski, the great drink-sodden exponent of Beat literature. Behan is best known as the author of Borstal Boy, an autobiographical account of his imprisonment at a young age in a English jail, and which was later adapted for the stage. After the Wake is a collection of Behan short stories, as well as journalistic pieces, and includes part of the Borstal Boy story.

Recently, the Dublin port company have been running a series of posters promoting the use of the port as a tourist link to Britain, somewhat bizarrely through reference to the numerous literary emigrés who took the 'mailboat' out of the country, often never to return. James Joyce is one, and Behan - a well-known nationalist author - another. I say bizarrely, because the prime motivation for this emigration (hardly the jaunty travelling that the company wishs to advertise) was, I would think, the conservative and narrow-minded culture, not to mention economic and political stagnation, of Ireland itself. I mean, these supposed national literary heroes were one-way ticket people, and more exiles than emigrés. And the self-proclaimed 'Borstal Boy' is an unlikely candidate for a reputable, not to say distinguished, cultural ambassador.

I had not in fact personally read Behan until very recently, when I picked this book up at the local library, and to say the least I was impressed. Think perhaps of the realism and dark humour of Bukowksi, against or rather with a more generous, gentler and less sociopathically destructive nature, and set within an older, impoverished yet verbally acute culture. Even just on literary merit alone, and leaving aside the politics, humanity and vibrancy of his characters, these short stories represent some very skilled writing.

This extract is from a story called 'The Execution', an understated, lightly scored (in the sense of the author playing on the emotions) and surprisingly tender tale of paramilitary murder and warped social relations. Pints, pistols and gombeens are not a world away from Bukowski's seedy underbelly of California. Well, in fact they are... but only becuase it's a small world. Read on; some knowledge of Irish history useful!

"We went in, Ellis between Kit and myself. The poor devil wouldn’t have run if we’d let him. He was telling me how it wasn’t his fault giving the dump away. He had never been picked up before and the cells had got in on him. Smiling contentedly to himself he was, and saying that maybe the boys wouldn’t think too badly of him when he took his tar and feathering like a man. Real wistfully he said to me, ‘I’d sooner get an awful beating than a tar and feathering because that’d be a terrible disgrace, my old man being a ’16 man an’ all.’ God help him. My father was a Dublin Fusilier in 1916, but that’s the way.

I squeezed his arm in a friendly way. I’d never liked him much before but I felt sorry for him and sorrier for his people. He had been fond of boasting about the Fenian tradition of his family. Still, we couldn’t let people give away dumps on us or there’d soon be no respect for the Army.

We entered the snug.

I’d my hand through the pocket of my mac and on my skit. It was a Police Positive .38 in a slip-holster, a nice small skit.

Gerry Dolan, I knew, had either a Lüger, Parabellum, Walther or a Browning. They were the only automatics in the company dump, except for a few Colt autos and a 9mm Peter that was too big to lug around. And Gerry dearly loved automatics, especially ones with queer names. I never saw the day he’d be satisfied with a Smith or Webley.

You can sometimes judge a fellow by his taste in skits.

Now Kit, I could swear, would be carrying a Colt auto. He liked a Smith but held that it was bulky for work like this. Although he didn’t love automatics as a rule, gra for the Colt. Mainly, I think, because when he went around checking dumps with the Batt. Q/M he could pinch a few rounds of Thompson stuff to bang off in it. A wild lad Kit, but dependable. A bit of a boozer. He used drink with Mickey Horgan and Connie.

For all that I’d nearly had them dismissed for using Army stuff on an unofficial job, I thought the three of them the best suited of the five of us in tonight’s work. Connie and Mickey would be carrying short Webleys.

I ordered four drinks – four pints, a mineral for Dolan and a glass of whiskey for Ellis. They give a condemned man a glass of rum and a cigarette in France. I wished Ellis had asked for a bottle of stout. Connie, Kit and Mickey were drinking abstractedly. The frothy rings on their glasses were equi-distant.

I wasn’t used to drink and was sorry I’d hadn’t ordered an ale, a pint seemed even more unmanageable tonight.

Ellis knocked back his whiskey and asked what we were having. I didn’t want to stop there all night and said we’d better be going. I was surprised when Gerry Dolan said it was his round. He ordered three pints, ale for me, and two whiskeys. His face reddened when I looked at him.

When we got in the car again Ellis’s spirits seemed even further improved, the liquor I supposed. He offered me a cigarette and struck a match; his face was very young looking.

About three miles further was the spot. It would be my job to tell them to get out of the car. Ellis would see the loneliness of it. There wasn’t a house in sight of it. It didn’t seem so easy a thing now.

It was a frosty night and my legs were getting a bit cramped. I hoped Ellis wouldn’t start crying or anything. I’d sooner he put a fight. It would be easier to let him have it.

‘Let him have it,’ ‘plugging him,’ ‘knocking him off’. It’s small wonder people are shy of describing the deed properly. We were going to kill him..."

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Jack Kerouac - Desolation Angels (Yet Another Extract)

Like On the Road, Desolation Angels is primarily a novel of many journeys, with Kerouac as ever trying to live out (and describe) the American Dream as idiosyncratically and as anti-materialistically as possible. That, aside from the philosophical musings and emotional agonising, is the pure simplicity of the book. Kerouac was an author who combined deep introspection of his own psychological state with close observation of the world around him. Together, this produces in his writing neat, lyrical stories which would merely be called ‘real-life’ if, in fact, they were not so sublimely realistic and uniquely beautiful. Here, in ‘Passing through New York’, Kerouac nearly loses his complete pack while riding the bus – the story passing from sudden disaster to existential angst, on into biography, then religious mysticism and back to calm, Zen-like relief again:

“I got down to the bus station with my rucksack and foolishly (high on Jack Daniels) began talking to some sailors who then got a guy with a car to drive out to the back streets of Washington in search of an afterhours bottle. A Negro connection was dickering with us when up walked a Negro cop who wanted to search us all, but was outnumbered. I simply walked away with my rucksack on my back, to the station, got on the bus and fell asleep with the pack by the driver’s well. When I woke up in Roanoke Rapids at dawn it was gone. Somebody had taken it off at Richmond. I let my head fall on the seat in that harsh glare nowhere worse in the world than in America with a stupid guilty hangover. A whole new novel (Angels of Desolation), a whole book of poetry, and the finishing chapters of another novel (about Tristessa), together with all the paintings not to mention the only gear I had in the world (sleepingbag, poncho, sweater of holy favour, perfect simple equipments the result of years’ thinking, gone, all gone. I started to cry. And I looked up and saw the bleak pines by the bleak mills of Roanoke Rapids with one final despair, like the despair of a man who has nothing left to do but leave the earth forever. Soldiers waited for the bus smoking. Fat old North Carolinians watched hands aback clasped. Sunday morning, I empty of my little tricks to make life livable. An empty orphan sitting nowhere, sick and crying. Like dying I saw all the years flash by, all the efforts my father had made to make life something to be interested about but only ending in death, blank death in the glare of automobiles day, automobile cemeteries, whole parking lots of cemeteries everywhere. I saw the glum faces of my mother, of Irwin, of Julien, of Ruth, all trying to make it go on believing without hope. Gay college students in the back of the bus making me even sicker to think of their purple plans all in time to end blind in an automobile cemetery insurance office for nothing. Where’s yonder old mule buried in those piny barrens or did the buzzard just eat? Caca, all the world caca. I remembered the enormous despair of when I was 24 sitting in my mother’s house all day while she worked in the shoe factory, in fact sitting at my father’s death chair, staring like a bust of Goethe at nothing. Getting up once in a while to plunk a sonatas on the piano, sonatas of my own spontaneous invention, then falling on the bed crying. Looking out the window at the glare of automobiles on Crossbay Boulevard. Bending my head over my first novel, to sick to go on. Wondering about Goldsmith and Johnson how they burped sorrow by their firesides in a life that was too long. That’s what my father told me the night before he died, “Life is too long.”

So wondering if God is a personal God who’s actually personally concerned about what happens to us, every one. Putting us up to burdens? To Time? To the crying horror of birth and the impossible lostness of the promise of death? And why? Because we’re fallen angels who said in Heaven “Heaven is great, it better be anyway” and off we fell? But do you even remember doing such a thing?

All I remember is that before I was born there was bliss. I actually remember the dark swarming bliss of 1917 altho I was born in 1922! New Years’ Eves came and went and I was just blisshood. But when I was dragged out my mother’s womb, blue, a blue baby, they yelled at me to wake up, and slapped me, and ever since then I’ve been chastised and lost for good and all. Nobody slapped me in bliss! Is God everything? If God is everything then it’s God who slapped me. For personal reasons? Do I have to carry this body around and call it mine own?

Yet in Raleigh a tall blue-eyed Southerner told me my bag was being shipped to my destination station in Winter Park. “God bless you,” I said, and he did a calm double take.”

Monday, September 10, 2007

Jack Kerouac - Desolation Angels (A Photographic Interlude)

I've recently returned from a short hiking holiday in the Welsh mountains of Snowdonia, a holiday on which I brought Desolation Angels along with me to read. Call me an idealist, but part of me was looking for some kind of beat Kerouackian journey of experience in the wilderness - not that we were that far from people most of the time - and indeed, part of the time it was like this. These photographs (presented in chronological order) were taken on a beautiful cloudless day, on a 15k ridge walk to the peaks of Glyder Fach and Glyder Fawr (some way to the northwest of Mt. Snowdon, Yr Wddfa). I used a Fuji FinePix S7000 digital SLR, and converted the pictures afterwards (mostly with a red filter... as all b/w photographers know, it is great for bringing up atmospheric skyscapes).

Desolation Angels isn't much of a mountain book - in spite of its beginning with Kerouac in situ on a mountaintop like the crazy ascetic monk he always wanted to be - and I think The Dharma Bums, with its vivid account of Ray, Japhy and Morley's hike up the Matterhorn, better fits that description. Nevertheless, the solitude and inescapable vastness of the mountain landscape is a key emotional and philosophical theme of the novel. Mt. Desolation, and the rest of the Cascades for that matter, are probably incomparably vaster and emptier than the rocky enclave of Snowdonia, but I'm going to go ahead and draw the comparison anyway.

I'm no poet, and I'm not really all that much of a writer - definitely more of a reader! - so here's my own artistic response to Kerouac's "Desolation Blues" in Twelve Choruses: "Desolation Black & Whites" in Twelve Portraits.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Jack Kerouac - Desolation Angels

Desolation Angels is one of Kerouac’s later books, first published in 1965, nearly a decade after On the Road. Clearly, it is somewhat more advanced in both style and content, and can seem a little daunting in comparison. More dense than breathless, it is nevertheless a wonderful expansion of the great and profound Beat odyssey which begins with On the Road. I first found it in the college library in hardback, and avidly read the 186 chapters within a couple of weeks, at whatever opportunity presented itself.

Desolation Angels is more fragmented than the other Kerouac novels, in fact made up of two books, ‘Desolation Angels’ and ‘Passing Through’, Book One containing one hundred and two chapters, and Book Two eight-four, all of fairly short length. The chapters are further arranged by setting or theme: ‘Desolation in Solitude’, ‘Desolation in the World’; ‘Passing Through Mexico’, ‘Passing Through New York’, ‘Passing Through Tangiers, France and London’ and ‘Passing Through America Again’.

The Kerouac canon, or more specifically the ‘Duluoz Legend’ (the series of autobiographical novels, each written and published at the time with Jack Duluoz, i.e. Kerouac, under different aliases) overlaps significantly at this period. Desolation Angels begins almost exactly as The Dharma Bums ends, with Kerouac as a fire lookout in the High Cascades. Not only was the experience of Mt. Desolation made into the centrepiece of this novel (purportedly transcribed directly from his journals written at the time), but it is recorded in poetry in ‘Desolation Blues’, and in prose in ‘Alone on a Mountaintop’, part of Lonesome Traveler – which, to further complicate matters, also recounts the experiences of ‘Passing Through Tangiers, France and England’ as ‘Big Trip to Europe’. Finally, the tail-end of Desolation Angels hints at the even darker writing of Big Sur, Kerouac’s deeply disturbing tale of the D.T.s and paranoia in an isolated coastal cabin on the wild California coast, as a refuge from his unwelcome and intrusive new celebrity:

‘But enough about California for now – I later had adventures down there that were really horrible and only as horrible as you get when you get older and your last moment impels you to test all, to go mad, just to see what the Void’ll do – ”

As I say, Desolation Angels is a fragmented work, perhaps a return to the epic grandeur of the Great American Novel Kerouac always wanted to write, and away from the relative brevity and unrelenting movement of On The Road. Desolation Angels possesses in many ways a broader scope – travelling outside of the American continent, for a start – but also a broader, more reflective vision. Having absorbed and refined the exuberant style of On The Road, as well as progressing through the Buddhist mysticism of The Dharma Bums, the Kerouac of Desolation digs that little bit deeper into the Beat lifestyle.

At the same time, Desolation Angels has its extremes of wild exuberance as well as solemn introspection; it still works quite excellently as a Beat novel, as a superbly creative celebration of life’s loves and sorrows. It starts with Kerouac having attained the spiritual and literal peak of the previous novel, and yet grappling with the implications of prolonged (although desired) solitude. Here, Kerouac descends the trail on his return from his 63-day stint as fire lookout:

“The best way to come down a mountain is like running, swing your arms free and fall as you come, your feet will hold you up for the rest – but O I had no feet because no shoes, I was “barefooted” (as the saying goes) and far from stomping down on big trail-singin steps as I bash along tra la tra la I could hardly even mincingly place them the soles were so thin and the rocks so sudden some of them with a sharp bruise – A John Bunyan morning, it was all I could do to keep my mind on other things – I tried to sing, think, daydream, do as I did by the desolation stove – but Karma your trail is laid out for you – Could have no more escaped that morning of bruised torn feet and burning-ache thighs (and eventual searing blisters like needles) and the gasping sweats, the attack of insects, than I can escape and than you can escape being eternally around to go through the emptiness of form (including the emptiness of form of your complaining personality) – I had to do it, not rest, my only concern was keeping the boat or even losing the boat, O what sleep on that trail that night would have been, full moon, but full moon was shining down on the valley too – and there you could hear music over the waters, and smell cigarette smoke, and listen to the radio – Here, all was, thirsty little creeks of September no widern my hand, giving out water with water, where I splashed and drank and muddled to go on – Lord – How sweet is life? As sweet

as cold

water in a dell

on a dusty tired trail –

- on a rusty tired trail – bestrewn with the kickings of the mules last June when they were forced at stickpoint to jump over a badly hacked pathway around a fallen snag that was too big to climb, and Lord I had to bring up the mare among the frightened mules and Andy was cursing “I cant do this all by myself goddamnit, bring up that mare!” and like in an old dream of other lifetimes when I handled the horses I came up, leading her, and Andy grabbed the reins and heaved at her neck, poor soul, while Marty stabbed her in the ass with a stick, deep – to lead the frightened mule – and stabbed the mule – and rain and snow – now all the mark of that fury is dry in September dust as I sit there and puff – a lot of little edible weeds all around – A man could do it, hide in these hills, boil weeds, bring a little fat with him, boil weeds over small Indian fires and live forever – “Happy with a stone underhead let heaven and earth go about their changes!” sang old Chinese Poet Hanshan – No maps, packs, firefinders, batteries, airplanes, warnings on radios, just mosquitoes humming in harmony, and the trickle of the streamlet – But no, Lord has made this movie in his mind and I’m a part of it (the part of it known as me) and it’s for me to understand this world and so go among it preaching the Diamond Steadfastness that says: “You’re here and you’re not here, both, for the same reason,” – “it’s Eternal Power munging along” – So I up I get and lunge along with pack, thumbed, and wince on ankled pains and turn and turn the trail faster and faster under my growing trot and pretty soon I’m running, bent, like a Chinese woman with a pack of faggots on her neck, jingle jingle drumming and pumping stiff knees thru rock underbrush and around corners, sometimes I crash off the trail and bellow back on’t, somehow, never lose, the way was made to be followed – Down the hill I’ll meet thin young boy starting out on his climb, I’m fat with butchers, and it’s Springtime in the Void – Sometimes I fall, on haunches, slipt, the pack is my back bumper, I burnst right along bumbling for fair, what words to describe hoopely tootely pumling down a parpity trail, prapooty – Swish, sweat – Every time I hit my bruised football toe I cry “Almost!” but it never gets it straight so’s lame me – The toe, bruised in Columbia College scrimmages under lights in Harlem dusks, some big bum from Sandusky trod on it with his spikes and big boned calf all down – Toe never recovered – bottom and top both busted and sore, when a rock prods in there my whole ankle will turn to protect it – yet, turning an ankle is a Pavlovian fait accompli, Airapetianz couldnt show me any better how not to believe I’ve strained a needed ankle, or even sprained – it’s a dance, dance from rock to rock, hurt to hurt, wince down the mountain, the poetry’s all there – And the world that awaits me!”

To my mind, Kerouac is by far one of the most enjoyable writers to read in prose. I noted in my review of The Dharma Bums that I hadn’t talked much about Kerouac’s actual writing style, so I’ll try and rectify that here. ‘Beat’, ‘poetry of pure prose’, ‘spontaneous prose’, there are plenty of phrases to describe it – but, in the end, you can only experience it for yourself.

The extract above is as good as any, really, for appreciating the pure Kerouac style. Both palpably exciting and intellectually clever, his writing is to me often absolutely captivating. Moreover, it is (paradoxically, given the last remark) wonderfully free – in the sense that as a writer Kerouac plays loose and fast with language. Spontaneity, wordsmithery, humour, aural and visual allusions, all play a part in creating that superbly original style. Kerouac for me is someone who has deconstructed language – breaking down the conventions and constrictions of standard prose into a sublime string of words, phrases, meanings and transcendent emotions.

As an Irishman, I am that little bit proud to draw a link between Kerouac and the past master of expansive, streaming prose – James Joyce. A clearly acknowledged influence on Kerouac, what Joyce did in 1922 with Ulysses was to deconstruct both the novel and the language with which a novel was written. Obviously, Kerouac rarely reaches the extremes of that infamous book – although parts of Desolation Angels definitely come close – and as a Joycean, he was a partial, if devoted, follower. In his early journals (windblown worlds, p. 48) he remarks:

“…I do believe in the kind of writing that gives effortless pleasure to the reader. In the end, I am my own greatest reader. Also, I believe in sane writing, as opposed to the psychotic sloppiness of Joyce. Joyce is a man who only gave up trying to communicate to human beings. I myself do that when I’m drunk-weary and full of misery, therefore I know it’s not so honest as it’s spiteful to blurt out in associations without a true human effort to evoke and give significant intelligence to one’s sayings. It’s a kind of scornful idiocy.”

I’m pretty sure he was taking about Finnegan’s Wake, however! With some qualifications, the Joyce-Kerouac comparison is really crucial, in my opinion at least, to appreciating Kerouac’s writing. The trail extract above, while fairly straightforward, contains many Joycean elements, particularly in the association of words and sounds – creating a tone similar to that in the following extract. The blending of rhythms, orthography and jokey humour is evocative of language in its cultural association – here in a earthy, folksy American style rather than, as with Joyce, the cosmopolitan Dubliner speech. The style is used for both meaning and effect, for art and for emotion – but most of all, to show the capabilities and potential of language, its biblical, time-honoured significances, and the way it should intimately affect the reader. So here’s how Joyce did it (in the ‘Oxen of Sun’ chapter of Ulysses, as Bloom converses with a nun in the maternity hospital – I think)

“As her eyes then ongot his weeds swart therefore sorrow she feared. Glad after she was that ere adread was. Her asked if O’Hare Doctor tidings sent from far coast and she with grameful sigh him answered that O’Hare Doctor in heaven was. Sad was the man that word to hear that him so heavied in bowels ruthful. All she there told him, ruing death for friend so young, algate sore unwilling God’s rightwiseness to withsay. She said that he had a fair sweet death through God His goodness with masspriest to be shriven, holy housel and sick men’s oil to his limbs. The man then right earnest asked the nun of which death the dead man was died and the nun answered him and said that he was died in Mona island through bellycrab three year agone come Childermas and she prayed to God the Allruthful to have his dear soul in his undeathliness. He heard her sad words, in held hat sad staring. So stood they there both awhile in wanhope, sorrowing one with other.

Therefore, everyman, look to that last end that is thy death and the dust that gripeth on every man that is born of woman for as he came naked forth from his mother’s womb so naked shall he wend him at the last for go as he came.”

There is both a style and a meaning to this novel. Desolation Angels is - for all its superficial, carefree wanderlust experiences - a deeply philosophical, mystical and even religious work of literature. As Kerouac wanders from Seattle to San Francisco, Mexico, New York and Europe, he ponders the existential suffering of his life. The super-vibrant characters of On The Road and onward criss-cross this whole novel as well; Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and innumerable other literary heroes. Those people, who were previously Beats, Zen Lunatics or just sorrowful friends are all now, in Kerouac’s eyes, ‘angels in desolation’. In all, Desolation Angels reads like a massive beatific vision of a country and culture which Kerouac alternates between being jaded or eagerly anticipatory of. The novel alternates between both beauty and sadness.

Desolation Angels is an intensely psychological novel – an explanation, as Nelson Algren remarks, of ‘what the place of religion may have been in the Beat mystique’. Kerouac’s spontaneous prose spoke of literary freedom – freedom of style, and of content. As he says himself, returning again to Joyce, (windblown world, p. 242):

"Come a day there will when… authors of exact imagination will be free, as Joyce felt free, to wind out their moody shroud about the riddle of the tale being told."

Desolation Angels is also, lastly, a symbolic novel – an idealist novel, centred on the feeling of desolation, not depression but a feeling of ‘lostness’ in the world – based around an intense personal sadness and vibrant, mystical experience of suffering and joy. As he writes in the final chapter:

"How we continue in this endless Gloom I’ll never know – Love, Suffer and Work is the motto of my family (Lebris de Keroack) but seems I suffer more than the rest – Old Honeyboy Bill’s in Heaven for sure anyway – Only thing is Where’s Jack Going?”