Even though most of Jack Kerouac’s long form novels chart, in semi-fictionalised fashion, his own life and exploits, they come in a range of tones and, as we pick up the story of Kerouac’s fictionalised self Jack Duluoz in Desolation Angels, we find him at a truly pivotal point in his life.
Originally published in 1965, as with much of a Kerouac’s work it was actually written several years before and in this case charts a section of his life from late summer 1956 to spring 1957 just before them publication of On The Road (here shortened simply to Road).
As ever it’s hard to be sure where reality ends and fiction begins but it all has the ring of truth, particularly given events discussed in biography Desolation Angel, as vaguely disguised members of the so-called Beat Generation come and go as we follow Duluoz on yet more travels.
The book is split in two, supposedly originally intended to be two separate novels with Desolation Angels followed by the more nomadic Passing Through, but they link together seamlessly and have the same tone and sense of reflection throughout.
The book opens with Duluoz working as a fire marshal of a sort on a mountain in Washington state where, lost in his own reveries for three months of summer, he takes the time to begin exploring his Buddhist beliefs, similar to aspects of The Dharma Bums.
I have to admit this section becomes rather challenging to read in places as, in Kerouac’s trademark spontaneous prose style, it gets lost in his reveries – in its best moments this is genuinely transporting but in other places is a struggle to find access to, but either way is hugely impressive.
After the mountain Kerouac returns to his somewhat spiritual home (as much as he ever seemed to have one) of San Francisco and The Bay Area and it’s clear early on that, compared to the likes of On The Road, the group of writers, poets and artists that made up the San Francisco Renaissance are in a far more established and better off place (including Kerouac himself) in the wake of HOWL et al, as money seems to be far less of an issue and their lifestyles far more extravagant, with a wild ride of society parties, hotels, restaurants and jazz clubs making up the bulk of the action.
Along with this he still finds time to visit more down at heel places, from neighbourhoods ‘South Of Market’ to race tracks with Neal Cassady, something Kerouac (well Duluoz, I suppose) seems to feel far more at home with.
During this we get a sequence in a jazz club that spectacularly captures, in real poetic fashion, the sense of the music and the excitement Kerouac felt hearing, seeing and experiencing a band and guest musicians jamming during an afternoon session.
Second section, Passing Through, begins with Duluoz making the trip south to Mexico City, where again he finds the energy of the city in its less glamorous environs, as he tries to write, but also hooks up with Bull Hubbard (the barely disguised William S. Burroughs) stuck in the depth of morphine addiction.
From there this second section of the book is far more like On The Road in structure as Duluoz seems to barely stay in one place for more than a few days as he heads from Mexico to New York, onwards across the Atlantic to Tangiers (again to meet Burroughs writing what became Naked Lunch), through France to England, back to New York then to Florida and on to Berkeley with his then ageing mother in tow and finally back to Florida where, it seems, he is finally settled and somewhat exhausted, as is the reader.
While the pace is swift the whole thing takes on an increasingly melancholy tone, though there are high moments, but it’s clear Kerouac is already increasingly troubled by his role in defining the Beat Generation and all that is to entail (while Ginsberg, here Irwin Garden, seems to revel in it) and the extent of his drinking, while always present, becomes increasingly more prevalent with a more desperate feel to it.
Along with this his relationship with his mother is explored more deeply and, true to form, he finds more room for guilt and melancholy here as well, especially as, in his telling, he drags her across the country and back again for no real reason.
Through all this his Buddhist beliefs are put through the ringer of his mind and it feels like, by the end, the clash of these and the Catholicism he was born into is tearing him apart spiritually.
This all makes Desolation Angels a more challenging read than some of a Kerouac’s other work but an undeniably rich experience for it, though, for me, it is once again his capturing of a period of time now lost that is the highlight as we see a world that feels so close we could almost touch it but at the same time so alien to ours and he doesn’t shy away from showing the good and bad of it (in sometimes quite controversial fashion) in a lyrical way that captures far more of its essence than plain, explanatory, prose ever could.
Now I want to do a big American road trip even more though…