“Desolation Angels”, a Review

Finished reading Jack Kerouac’s “Desolation Angels” (1965), after 4 months of lugging it around in my backpack and car (I find books difficult to read with my current lifestyle, and would have better success if I ignored all the other humans in my vicinity).

In this, Kerouac through his proxy Jack Dolouz begins this chapter of his journey on top of Mount Desolation, on a 3-month summer stint on fire watch for the forestry service. He had hoped to take his mountaintop wisdom from “Dharma Bums” and parlay that into a total Zen Buddhist experience of living alone to think, to watch, to dream, to write, to get in touch with the immortal and ephemeral alike. What we find is Jack struggling with day-to-day ritual, with his only link to humanity being a twice-daily radio network and an occasional supply drop from above.

As Jack descends from the mountaintop, his only goal is to approach the world (via Seattle, San Francisco, Mexico City, New Orleans, New York, Washington DC, Algiers, Morocco, Florida, Berkeley), with new eyes and hungry mouth, longing to take it all in. What he finds is that none of it approaches his highest hopes.

In this book, we find Jack doing a middle-aged about-face. In his search for kicks, it smacks him full-faced and all he wants to do is stop traveling and live a quiet life in his mother’s home. By the end, we find him rhapsodizing about the simple life of his mother, how she quietly mends his torn clothes and admonishes him to stay away from Allan Ginsberg, Neal Cassady, and William Burroughs. He turns around and reveals that, in her quiet ways, she has become the Boddhisatva, the holy one, and that the only life to which anyone should achieve is quietude.

Personally, I have not had as many extreme, soul-filling, body-killing experiences as the young Kerouac. I haven’t sowed my wild oats as far as he. So, ultimately, I don’t share his view, but I kinda do. At 47, I realize that there is no way that I, an old creeper in a college town, could find my kicks and get enough fulfillment out of life to the point where I’m saying, “I think I’ll just chill out and write for the rest of my life.” I wish it were the case.

Unfortunately, 47 is also the age our very own Jack Kerouac took his own life. He had found his bitter peace. I wonder what the world would’ve been like had he passed of natural causes.

This book is also the point where we see Jack’s acidic critique of the beatnik subculture he helped create. He was weary of their tenacious “coolness”, as if they saw their own disaffection as a virtue. Jack was about getting hot into the now, baby. Putting on black clothes, wearing goatees and saying, “Charlie Parker should’ve been more reserved” really, really stuck in his craw. The Buddha felt everything with full force; how could these poseurs not see that?

[58] My money came and it was time to go but there’s poor Irwin at midnight calling up to me from the garden “Come on down Jack-Kee, there’s a big bunch of hipsters and chicks from Paris in Bull’s room.” And just like in New York or Frisco or anywhere there they are all hunching around in marijuana smoke, talking, the cool girls with long thin legs in slacks, the men with goatees, all an enormous drag after all and at the time (1957) not even started yet officially with the name of “Beat Generation.” To think that I had so much to do with it, too, in fact at that very moment the manuscript of Road was being linotyped for imminent publication and I was already sick of the whole subject. Nothing can be more dreary than “coolness” (not Irwin’s cool, or Bull’s or Simon’s, which is natural quietness) but postured, actually secretly rigid coolness that covers up the fact that the character is unable to convey anything of force or interest, a kind of sociological coolness soon to become a fad up into the mass of middleclass youth for awhile. There’s even a kind of insultingness, probably unintentional, like when I said to the Paris girl just fresh she said from visiting a Persian Shah for Tiger hunt “Did you actually shoot the tiger yourself?” she gave me a cold look as tho I’d just tried to kiss her at the window of a Drama School. Or tried to trip the Huntress. Or something. But all I could do was sit on the edge of the bed in despair like Lazarus listening to their awful “likes” and “like you know” and “wow crazy” and “a wig, man” “a real gas” — All this was about to sprout out all over America even down to High School level and be attributed in part to my doing! But Irwin paid no attention to all that and just wanted to know what they were thinking anyway.

Acidically brutal.

Sometimes, real truth, real holiness, is in being quiet. And I hope, one day, I can be satisfied, and find that quietude.

Published by Shawn

He's just this guy, you know?