1. Jack Kerouac – Desolation Angels (1965)
Jack Kerouac; the Big Daddy of the Beats. Co-authored And the Hippos Were Boiled in their Tanks with Burroughs in 1945, and famously included him – “Old Bull Lee” – in his epoch-defining On the Road. He also edited Naked Lunch, alongside Ginsberg; a story that is told in Desolation Angels, which is why I’m here.
The first thing that strikes me on returning to Kerouac is the prose. I can’t say I was ever very excited by On the Road, but looking back this might have been because I was expecting the wrong things from it. It is marketed as a book for rebellious youth, all about travel, adventure, danger.
When I read it at 21, looking for these things, I found it positively tame.
Here, in Desolation Angels, I realise what I missed. Here we see an older Jack, tired with fame, beaten down from the road, who seems so desperately sensitive that you want to protect him, nurture him, keep him away from bright lights.
His style is digressive but pleasantly so. It wanders slowly, but with great and surprising power, like a Cadillac being driven down a highway by a drunk driver on the edge of sleep. It has the power to turn any act into a thing of transcendent relevance.
He begins by talking about the Buddha but he ends by talking about Christ.
The book begins with an eight-week stint as firewatch, living alone on top of a mountain in the Rockies. Here we get reflections on life, memories, lessons, and some beautiful and fascinating passages all about life up in the hills, away from it all, with only a radio for company.
When he comes down from the mountain he proceeds to bum around New York, then travel to Seattle, Florida, a stop in Mexico, over to Tangier (editing Naked Lunch on the way), then Paris, London, and back to see his mum. He tries to move his mum to California but she hates it so they end the novel by returning to Florida.
It’s here, in the following years, where he would drink himself to death, sitting on his mum’s couch watching TV.
It’s somewhere through this swirling, never-ending cavalcade of parties and hijinks that we, as readers, come to realise a truth that Kerouac never seems to have discovered himself. The central contradiction in the Beat dream.
For people that never shut up about their desire for mind-expanding, hyper-poetic, original and never-to-be-repeated experiences, they sure do do the same thing a lot.
We go to New York. We drink, sex, fight. We go to Seattle. We drink, sex, fight. We go to Mexico – same thing in sombreros. We go to Tangier – same thing but with kif.
The majority of the book, as a result, folds into itself. It’s largely a blur. The passages that stand out are those rare moments when Kerouac actually genuinely experiences something new. His time up the mountain, for example, or the Atlantic storm that meets him halfway to Africa.
It’s only when he returns to Mexico with his mother that we see anything of real interest in the place. For the Beats, moving en masse, it’s essentially a cheaper, hotter New York. It’s his mother, with her total lack of worldliness, who sees the true character of Mexico; the passionate eyes in the white-washed chapel, incense in the air, poverty and soul.
Kerouac’s own style, I realise, is born of this sensitivity; an openness that gives him vision, but makes him suggestible, chameleonic almost in the way he inhabits spaces. At times he sounds like unfiltered Ginsberg, at other times he’s spitting like an uptight Burroughs. He’s suggestible; a fact buried in his media presentation as hard-nosed rebel-poet hero.
There’s a lot of important material in here relating directly to Burroughs, with the Naked Lunch section primary among them. I realise as I read it that I’ve already read it dozens of times before. It’s been mined by every Burroughs biographer and academic until there’s nothing there left unquoted.
There’s a good story about a scorpion too. As yet, I think, unused.
But the main lesson here, for me, is about style. Kerouac is a bridge to the big modernists. His main inspiration, Tom Wolfe, I’ve not read, but might have to. Hemingway, Stein and Fitzgerald are all in here though. And is his contemporary, Salinger, at least a little.
His prose rests on theirs, like a continuation of the Great American Tradition that, thanks to his acute sensitivity, also happens to fit right into its exact time and place. Post-war America. The big and beautiful dream.
The greatness of Kerouac, I now think, owes everything to his openness. He let the twentieth-century in, with all its joy and pain. Burroughs, by contrast, is closed up like a beetle, ironhard, grotesquely mimicking all he sees in an attempt to scare it away, cast it off, shatter its illusions.
Both, of course, are in some way poses. Both contain their opposites. The stylistic continuity we can find in certain passages of Desolation Angels and Burroughs’ Interzone-era work might provide a useful way in to interrogating this dynamic.