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?”

1 comment:

KCurtis said...

A wonderful description of the book, one I just finished and found very poignant, sad, funny, insightful, heartbreaking