Thursday, May 15, 2008

Desolation Angels - Jack Kerouac

Of all the great 20th century American novelists, Kerouac stands as probably the coolest. He will probably remain the coolest novelist of all time until for establishing so much of the American “hip” character. But he himself is not proud of this achievement! Desolation Angels is Kerouac’s attempt at explaining himself fully, without ornament, and apparently, more directly from his own diaries than in any of his other work. For further proof that I am not crazy in thinking Kerouac was not proud of creating an archetypal image of hipness, see the experience captured in Kurt Vonnegut’s Palm Sunday of Vonnegut’s son returning to his father’s house on Cape Cod carrying a duffel bag and wearing a white t-shirt and jeans, with Kerouac sitting at the table, suddenly starting up, claiming, drunkenly, “You don’t know anything about me!” or his ruminations appearing near the end of Desolation Angels, documenting the period in which Road was published:
“And just like in New York or Frisco or anywhere there they are all hunching around 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 lineotyped 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 a 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.” (358-359)
True, it may all be “dreary,” but it’s amazing how many people will namedrop Kerouac having only read Road (if even all of it, word by word) and diffuse so much of his energy through their own ambitions towards literature or celebrity. Kerouac is notorious for having written Road the way he did (people disagree with me, but I believe I am correct in saying, in three weeks, on one long sheet of paper (which no one debates, and which was actually on display in a bookstore in Boulder, CO one day I happened to be there, but which I passed up, for what reason I do not know, something stupid, so many stupid decisions of late…) and probably on some form of pep pills or something or other), and less-famous for the Subterraneans (a three-day-novella) and justifiably noteworthy for the crisp, more-straightforward narrative of The Dharma Bums. Now, after Desolation Angels, which I am prepared to say is my favorite Kerouac novel so far, my interest in him has been resuscitated, if only especially because everyone seems to have missed his point. And studying him for the purposes of literature ends in claiming that he himself often threw caution to the wind when it came to providing work worthy of “literary criticism”—there is a passage I will quote later (when I find it) where he details his method somewhat iconographically. There are no secret Nabokovian games Kerouac plays (he usually doesn’t leave the reader in the dark), beyond giving one character appearing in a brief moment the last name of Nabokov, certainly not an invisible personage several years after Lolita came into print. He doesn’t need to, because he’s got Irwin Garden and Bull Hubbard to talk about, and their equally famous recently published masterworks “Howling” and “Nude Supper.” Other characters pop in and out—famously Cody, who more or less makes a series of cameos, Ben Fagan, a Frisco buddhist appearing significantly in The Dharma Bums, Raphael Urso, a New Yorker poet who I still don’t was in real life, Simon (Irwin’s lover), his younger brother Lazarus, the Ruths Heaper and Erickson, Julien, who plays a large role in Subterraneans, Alyce Newman (Joyce Johnson, who wrote the introduction of the edition I read), and finally Keroauc’s Mother, often talked about as if a legend, finally given a total portrait to close out this amazing 400 page + prose masterpiece. I have not read Proust. I may have mentioned that before. But Kerouac does it so well. The self-styled novel-memoir can only be taken so many places. I must read Proust. I must read Big Sur. I must read Tristessa. I must read Doctor Sax (which I remember reading somewhere that he wrote entirely on “tea”). I must read Vanity of Duluoz. I must read Swann’s Way before most of those, though.
Kerouac’s importance in literature is often undersold by scholars and oversold by dilettantes who don’t really understand him and just like getting fucked up, and writing while they’re getting fucked up, and believing they don’t need to revise because everything a person says is holy and true when uttered in that one, original, unique moment, and everyone is God and everything is God, and we’re all far too uptight about the way we go about our lives. Important lessons all—but if we are going about it all wrong, what is the right way, Mr. Kerouac? He offers many instances of appreciating life, but finds little all-consuming happiness. With Ruth Heaper and Alyce Newman there appear fleeting moments of “normal” American domestic bliss, but after an opium high in Tangiers, he suddenly realizes that he no longer wants to participate in life. He wants to live in a quiet house and have no one bother him. All of the madness of his youth and the Beat generation has gotten him nowhere, except it has made him famous. One of the funniest lines in the book is when Raphael says, “Don’t comb your hair!” when talking about the Life magazine photographer coming to take pictures of the three of them together.
His love for his Mother, which some may laugh privately at, or roll their eyes at, or furrow their brows at, is actually one of the most beautiful sections of the book. There are only about forty or fifty pages with Kerouac and his Mother as the primary characters, but the way Kerouac describes her—how good she is to him, how greatly she still takes care of him even though she is 62 and he is 34, how she is willing to try to move from Florida to Berkeley with him on cross-country Greyhound bus trip, how he takes her to Mexico briefly and she experiences a higher revelation, how she drinks with him on the bus and talks about how she doesn’t like the Rocky Mountains because she thinks they’re going to fall over and crush them at any minute—is more loving than any other character portrayal, with Cody being the only one that even comes close. When he first mentions her he says, “Now we’re getting to the best person in the book,” and indeed that’s exactly what she seems. Though the narrative with her may actually deal more heavily in frustration than the other segments, and though it may not present anything so nearly transgressive or titillating as the rest of the book by the literary standards of the mid 1960’s, it is sort of the perfect ending for the book—slow, contemplative, and finally true, more honest and true than any other section in the book.

And at the end Kerouac seems to sneak in a few “trailers” for his other books, talking about Cody’s fate, saying something tragic happened, but then things went back to the way they used to be, and even though he swore off living wildly, Kerouac still goes out to have an adventure at Big Sur that he alludes to. The complete story of Kerouac can only be known to someone who takes the time to read all of his books, and then maybe someone who takes the time to read his journals and his letters to analyze how much truth and how much fiction comprised his work. I would say it highly consists of truth.

No comments: