Desolation Angels

by Jack Kerouac
   Ellis Amburn, Jack Kerouac’s last editor, called Desolation Angels Kerouac’s “lost masterpiece, the final flowering of his great creative period in the fifties: the true voice of Kerouac.” Dan Wakefield, writing for The Atlantic in July 1965, stated, “If the Pulitzer Prize in fiction were given for the book that is most representative of American life, I would nominate Desolation Angels.” Part One covers Kerouac’s 63 days as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak in 1956 and his subsequent reentry into the world in San Francisco, where the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance is about to begin. Kerouac wrote Part One in Mexico City at the same time that he was writing tristessa and mexico city Blues. In Part Two, Kerouac looks at the Beat innocents abroad, describing their adventures in Tangier, London, and Paris. Part Two was originally a separate book entitled “An American Passes Through.” Amburn saw the market for a really big Kerouac book and suggested to Kerouac that both books be published together under one title. Kerouac agreed. Seymour Krim wrote an introduction to the book that attempted to do for Kerouac what Malcolm Cowley had done for Faulkner: provide an overview of Kerouac’s life work that showed the interconnectedness of his books.
   In Part One, at the urging of gary snyder (Jarry Wagner in the novel), Kerouac signs on for a fire lookout job in the isolated mountains of Western Washington. His post is on Desolation Peak. There he attempts to live the life of a Buddhist monk or a hermit like Han Shan or like one of his boyhood idols, Thoreau, who lived on Walden Pond. What Kerouac learns from this experience is that deep inside of himself is a void of loneliness and, most embarrassing, boredom. He also discovers that to write, he needs characters, not mountains. About half of the brief chapters here are fantasies about what he will do when he returns to San Francisco or travels to Mexico. Still, Kerouac does gain some key insights that will influence him for years to come. He gains enlightenment and peace from the knowledge that the world is an illusion and that it all passes through him. He also writes some of the first environmental protest literature when he argues that the only reason that he is paid to spot fires is so that Scott paper will not lose any of the beautiful trees they cut down to make toilet paper. Here, too, Snyder is an influence. Kerouac admits Snyder’s influence and reminisces about their dharma bum days (The dHarma Bums precedes this book in chronological order), but he breaks with Snyder sometime during these two months by wanting to embrace society, not withdraw from it: “Yar give me society, give me beauteous faced whores.” This is in fact the advice that William S. Burroughs had given him about Buddhist withdrawal and monkishness: it was an Eastern, not a Western practice.
   The events of Kerouac’s life seem orchestrated to create scenes with the greatest possible meaning. He goes into the solitude of nature at the moment when the ecological consciousness is being formed on the West Coast by Snyder, kenneth rexroth, michael mcclure, and others; he returns to San Francisco at the very moment that the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance is underway, a mad social and cultural moment. He is there for both, and the contrast between the former and the latter (desolation versus society) creates great tension but also great energy in the opening sections of Part Two.
   Part Two takes Jack Duluoz (Kerouac’s persona) down the mountain and back into the city (San Francisco), a descent which has a ring of exile to it, of paradise lost. The sad truth that he has had to admit to himself following his experiences on Desolation Peak is that “the vision of freedom of eternity which I saw . . . is of little use in cities and warring societies such as we have.” (In fact, he makes it back to the city just in time to become entangled in a war between old-school and newschool poets). The experience of solitude works on him like a drug that has sharpened his perceptions: down from the mountain, he rediscovers American popular music, Time magazine, and alcohol—about which he concludes, “[T]here is no need for alcohol whatever in your soul.”
   En route to San Francisco, Duluoz hitches a ride to Seattle, where he watches a burlesque show and drinks with a crowd of bum “angels.” He needs “humanity,” he realizes, and he wants to “wake up” everyone he meets with speeches about what he has learned on the mountain. To him, all of humanity looks the way it does in a Chaplin film—angels without wings. This defamiliarization is similar to the new vision Kerouac has of New York when he returns from having been out West: Travel (in this case isolation) has always sharpened and reawakened his senses.
   Duluoz’s feet, it turns out, are too battered from his trip down the mountain to hitchhike past Seattle, and he takes a bus to San Francisco. Back in San Francisco, he wanders anonymously for a while before inevitably hooking back up with his “gang” at The Cellar and The Place: Rob Donnelly (Bob Donlin), Mal Damlette (Al Sublette), Chuck Berman (bob kaufman), Raphael Urso (gregory corso), David D’Angeli (lawrence ferlinghetti), Irwin Garden (Allen Ginsberg), Simon and Lazarus Darlovsky (the Orlovsky brothers), and Rene Levesque (Robert LaVigne). The plot of the book centers on several conflicts. For example, Raphael and Cody Pomeray (neal cassady) need to be brought together as friends, in the spirit of Beat brotherhood and inclusiveness. Garden wants to bring everyone in the arts together (even in bed), East and West Coast, to start a social revolution. However, he cannot even bring the warring poets from East and West together for a photo in Mademoiselle magazine—“Flaming Cool Poets.” Two holdouts are Patrick McLear (Michael McClure) and Geoffrey Donald (robert duncan), who insist on being photographed separately. Garden’s ultimate plan, which is realized in Book Two, is to take this artistic and cultural movement—that is, the Beat consciousness—international. Yet, the book is hardly a history of the budding San Francisco Poetry Renaissance; it is, to use Kerouac’s key phrase throughout the book, more as if he “passes through” this fascinating time and place as it “passes through” him.
   Book Two of Desolation Angels was originally a separate book, and a few signs of the books being separate remain. For example, the Randall Jarrell character has different names in the two books, and the norman mailer character goes by his real name in Book Two, although in Book One he is Harvey Marker. Kerouac also seems to have forgotten his caustic remarks about Jarrell’s 1956 poetry reading in Berkeley, for he admires the poet greatly when he visits him in Washington, D.C., a year later. The style of Book Two is also different from that of Book One, which was written in a spontaneous, bop style atop a Mexico City roof during an uninterrupted period of great peace that produced some of his finest writing: Tristessa and Mexico City Blues. Book Two was written five years later in a Mexico City hotel, and it reads more as if it were a memoir, albeit a memoir covering the lives and travels of some of the most interesting and talented people in the 20th century. Still, Book Two lacks Kerouac’s signature undercurrent of meaning and inevitability (what he calls “the holy contour of life”) that runs through his earlier spontaneous prose: in his works from the 1950s, he is able to write spontaneously but with intention and form, even if it is coming through uncensored. In Book Two, he simply appears to have less urgency to say what he has to say. There is, in other words, some key element subtly lacking that makes Book Two less of an achievement than the first.
   Part One of Book Two, “Passing Through Mexico,” is written from the distance of a very long five years in Kerouac’s life. He looks back on the first part of Desolation Angels and says that at that time in his life, he was seeking a balance between “doing nothing” (in the Buddhist sense) and being in life at the same time: Going down the mountain and heading to San Francisco allowed him to test his ability to “see the world from the viewpoint of solitude and to meditate upon the world without being imbroglio’d in its actions.” He heads to Mexico City to write and finds on his return there that he has forgotten a “certain drear, even sad, darkness” about the country: In his later work, Kerouac no longer romanticizes Mexico and the “fellaheen.” As he had done previously, Duluoz lives on the rooftop of Old Bull Gaines’s (Bill Garver) apartment. This is Kerouac’s longest portrait of his old junky friend from the mad Times Square, mid-1940s days, when Gaines/Garver stole overcoats to keep himself in junk. As is recounted in Tristessa, Duluoz makes junk runs for Gaines, empties his toilet for him, and writes in the afternoons and evenings. In the mornings, he watches Gaines shoot up and nod out, and he listens to his endless lectures drawn from H.G. Wells’s Outline of History. Years later, even Kerouac cannot understand his lifestyle at the time—“I was bound to live my own way”—but it led to three great books being written during that period. In a crucial passage, he describes his real contribution to literature from those days: “I was originating a new way of writing about life, no fiction, no craft, no revising afterthoughts.”
   The peace of this writing life is broken by the Lakofsky Brothers, Raphael Urso, and Irwin Garden, who arrive in Mexico City after a two-week stay in Guadalajara at the home of Alise Nabokov (Denise Levertov)—“a dull woman poetess,” says Duluoz. Urso hates Mexico, seeing it as doom ridden and full of death. This famous group of American poets wanders through Mexico’s slums and is whistled at admiringly by students for being so obviously who they are—great young American writers. They sit atop the pyramids and discuss the great Mayan and Aztec peoples and their bloodlust. At the end of the book, Garden plots Dulouz’s next move: “Irwin . . . always directed me in some ways.” They will all return to New York where it is time for Duluoz and all the other Beats to become famous. Duluoz realizes that the difference between him and Garden is Garden’s interest in politics and changing the world, a world which for Duluoz (in his Buddhist phase) is illusion. Garden evidently does not sense the reluctance and fear on Duluoz’s part about becoming famous. Part Two of Book Two, “Passing Through New York,” develops Duluoz’s fears of becoming famous. In this second part, he recalls his father’s prophecy that Garden would betray him. However, this “betrayal” does not take place until the end of the book, when Road (on tHe road) is published, but Garden is not there to guide him through the dangers of fame. First, Duluoz details the 3,000-mile trip back to New York in an overloaded car that is being shared by him, the Darlovskys, Garden, and two businessmen also headed to New York. They arrive exhausted and broke and with nowhere to stay. The ever-resourceful Garden looks up the two Ruths (Helen Vendler and Helen Weaver) in Chelsea and gets the gang inside their apartment. Duluoz and the Ruth character who is based on Helen Weaver are instantly attracted to each other. This is the lover whom Garden promised Duluoz would meet in the previous book. Duluoz describes his physical relation with Ruth in mock metaphors and claims to have given her the first “extase of her career.” This book contains some of Kerouac’s most lamentable misogynistic ramblings, the kind of material that made another girlfriend from this time complain that she loved Jack but despised the “woman-hating stuff.” Later, Ruth’s psychiatrist urges her to dump Duluoz, and he ends up living with another woman, Alyce Newman, who realizes that Duluoz is going to be a famous writer and offers to protect him. Foolishly, by the end of the book, he has turned her down.
   Of greatest interest to literary historians here is Kerouac’s rather shame-faced description of his stay at the Washington, D.C., house of Varnum Random (Randall Jarrell), whose poetry he had dismissed at a Berkeley reading described in Book One. To Kerouac, Jarrell’s poetry was the antithesis of his own. Random, Duluoz, and Urso (who is also Random’s guest) have a spirited discussion about the merits of Duluoz’s “spontaneous” prose, with Random and Urso weighing in against it—this in spite of the fact that Corso’s first successful poems are clearly influenced by Kerouac’s theory. Random says, “Well, it’ll probably become a popular gimmick, but I prefer to look upon poetry as a craft.” Duluoz replies by saying that “craft is crafty. How can you confess your crafty soul in craft?” Kerouac demonstrated his theory by writing, in one afternoon, the poem series entitled “Washington, D. C. Blues,” in Jarrell’s living room. Later, Kerouac felt as if he had taken advantage of his host, whom he ended up admiring in spite of his traditional approach to poetry.
   In visiting Jarrell, who was at that time the “National Poet,” it is apparent that Kerouac was on the verge of no longer being a fringe literary figure. However, Duluoz says ominously, “I foresaw a new dreariness in all this literary success.” Disaster strikes almost immediately. Leaving D.C., Duluoz loses his treasured pack with all of his unpublished manuscripts and openly weeps. The bag is returned, but this incident must have impressed Duluoz with the importance of getting his manuscripts in print. Visiting his mother at his sister’s house in Florida further inspires him to be a success, but at the same time, he knows success lies through the men his mother and father have warned him against—Garden and Bull Hubbard (William S. Burroughs). At the end of Part Two of “Passing Through,” these are the very men whom he goes to see in Tangier, Morocco, in Part Three of Book Two, “Passing Through Tangier, France, and London.”
   This trip was intended to be one in which the Beats went international. However, Duluoz is poisoned by cyanide-laden hashish in Tangier, and his “youthful brave sense of adventure” changes to “complete nausea concerning experience in the world at large.” He sees this as a defining turnabout in his life view. Before he is poisoned by the hashish, though, he spends a happy week in the company of Hubbard, who is in the middle of writing his masterpiece, Nude Supper (naked luncH). Duluoz describes Hubbard’s writing process as one of entertaining himself until he “suddenly double[s] up in laughter at what he done.” The pages of the manuscript strewn about the floor and patio of Hubbard’s Tangier apartment, but Duluoz collects them and types up fair copies. He is tremendously impressed by the “book”: No American writer, he says, was ever more honest than Hubbard is in Nude Supper. Scenes from the manuscript he is typing are so horrifying that they give Duluoz nightmares. When he asks the meaning of the hanged boys in the book, Hubbard says even he does not understand what he writes, as if he is “an agent from another planet but I haven’t got my orders yet.” Burroughs said years later that this is essentially the situation of all writers. Hubbard eagerly awaits Garden’s arrival in Tangier, for he is in love with him. Duluoz describes Hubbard’s maudlin pining for Garden. The opium seems to affect Hubbard, too, and when Irwin arrives, it is an anticlimax. By this point, Hubbard seems to have come to the conclusion that his melodrama with Garden is “silly.” He refuses to play tourist guide for Garden and his lover Simon Darlovsky (Peter Orlovsky), but the two travelers draw Duluoz down from his rooftop writings with childish calls of “Jack-kee!”
   As they tour Tangier, Duluoz and Garden see members of an international “hip” scene among the young Arabs, and they believe that their own work is partly responsible for an international Beat movement. As Burroughs would later say, the real contribution of the Beat movement may well have been its breaking down of the barriers between races and countries. By contrast, says Duluoz, “one look at the officials in the American Consulate . . . was enough to make you realize what was wrong with American ‘diplomacy’ throughout the Fellaheen world:—stiff officious squares with contempt even for their own Americans.” He suggests that the Americans get out of their limousines and move to the native quarters (from the suburbs) and share a kief pipe with the natives. In his letters about this trip, Kerouac is much more enthusiastic about the places to which he goes and people whom he meets—much more the “youthful adventurer” than you see here. In fact, his trip to Paris and London is covered in a mere eight pages in Desolation Angels. In France, Urso makes Duluoz spend all of his money in a trendy “subterranean” bar. He sees enough of England to decide that the Angry Young Men are far less interesting than London’s Teddy Boys. With money from Road’s British publication, he leaves as soon as he can: “I wanted to go home.”
   Part Four of Book Two, “Passing Through America Again,” reveals that Duluoz’s life at this point seems mistimed in a way that contrasts with the serendipitous events of the first book. He comes back to America and decides to move his mother from Florida to Berkeley—a move that she does not really want to make and is really, he admits, just a way for him to be closer to Pomeray. Several chapters are a defense of his love for and devotion to his mother, a relationship that had been criticized by his friends as far back as 1944 when Burroughs performed an amateur psychoanalysis of Kerouac. He attacks his “fellow writers” who all hate their mothers and accuses them of ignoring their mothers’ devotion to them and their simple humanity. One of the critics of Kerouac’s relationship with his mother is joyce johnson in minor cHaracters (1983), who is identified here as Duluoz’s girlfriend Alyce. Still, Johnson points out that Memere is the only woman whom Kerouac ever took on the road, and the ending of Desolation Angels includes a marvelous account of their trip from Florida to northern California, in which Duluoz ushers his mother through scenes that he has witnessed many times in Mexico, New Orleans, and Los Angeles. Through her eyes he sees the holiness of the converted Indians in Mexico as well as the evil of Los Angeles’s downtown sidewalks. Fortunately, “every evil dog in evildom understands it when he sees a man with his Mother, so bless you all.”
   The end of the book compresses a lot of Kerouac’s experiences. His mother is no sooner in Berkeley than she is writing back to her daughter in Florida. Dulouz is given a jay walking ticket and sees California as a police state (as Kerouac writes to Snyder, too, in letters from this time period). In a remarkable and factually accurate scene, the first copies of Road arrive, and he has the unopened book in his hand at that moment when Pomeray, Slim Buckle (Al Hinkle), and Joanna (Luanne Henderson) (some of the “heroes” of the book) all walk in on him. Duluoz sees a golden halo around Pomeray, which he has seen on only a few other occasions, and knows Pomeray is an “angel.” However, Pomeray cannot meet Duluoz’s eyes, and just a few months later, suddenly famous and conspicuous, Pomeray is busted for marijuana possession. Duluoz denies responsibility for Pomeray’s misfortune (Cassady would spend two years in jail), claiming that the bust was a “karmic” punishment for Pomeray’s “belting” of his daughter, a scene Dulouz witnessed.
   The book ends with Duluoz running back to Mexico just after he has moved his mother to Florida once again. There he discovers that his friend Gaines committed suicide when he could not score any morphine. A huge earthquake rocks his hotel that night: “It’s all over,” he believes. The coda has him back in New York where he, Simon Darlovsky, Urso, and Garden are all now famous writers. Duluoz, however, hopes for a “new life,” a quiet one with his mother, and says good-bye to the Desolation Angels. Duluoz says he is feeling “peaceful,” which Joyce Johnson has called Kerouac’s “white lie to provide a sense of closure.” The ending of the book reflects Malcolm Cowley’s complaint that the narrator is a “ghost,” and Kerouac says that this was the point: After coming down from the mountain, he saw in a vision that they were all angels, just passing through, and through which, in turn, life passed.
■ Amburn, Ellis. Subterranean Kerouac: The Hidden Life of Jack Kerouac. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.
■ Johnson, Joyce. Introduction. Desolation Angels, by Jack Kerouac. New York: Riverhead Books, 1995, vii–xvii.
■ Wakefield, Dan. “Kerouac, Leary and Whoever.” Gentlemen’s Quarterly, April 1991, 218–225, 263–264.
   Rob Johnson

Encyclopedia of Beat Literature. . 2014.

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