Probably due to my age and the relative lateness in life that I was exposed to his writings(compared to most readers of “hipster” authors), I haven’t fully joined up as a member of the ‘Kult of Jack Kerouac’.
That hasn’t stopped me from enjoying most of the dozen books of his I’ve read so far, the most recent being ‘Desolation Angels’. Starting with the often recommended ‘The Dharma Bums’, ‘Big Sur’ and ‘On The Road'(of course, did you think I wouldn’t list it?) it wasn’t until I read ‘Satori In Paris’ and ‘Subterraneans’ that I began to appreciate his work.
But I wouldn’t say I liked his novels in the same way they were embraced or taken as some sort of tutorial by ‘beatniks’ at first and later ‘hippies’ to go out and do what-ever-it-was they had in mind, but rather it has more to do with his ability to observe and chronicle the lives and times of people and places he knew. The description of a simpler time when a resourceful person could live on the fringe of society, requiring the bare minimum of resources, travel widely- which frequently involved crossing borders or oceans- all in pursuit of dreams, visions or enlightenment.
‘Desolation Angels’ was intended originally to be two separate works but was combined in one totaling 408 pages. It was ‘Part Two’ beginning on page 235 where my attention was completely focused on listening to what Kerouac had to say. To me, ‘Part One’ was mostly variations on the themes presented in ‘The Dharma Bums’ and ‘On The Road’ occurring immediately after spending several months in isolation working as a fire-watcher in the mountains of Washington State where he came to some realization about his life he calls a “complete turningabout”. This second part chronicles his travels (Mexico, New York, Africa, Europe and again New York) where Kerouac presents some sort of self-critical admission of how he saw himself and the world he lived in. As any reader will tell you most(all?) of Kerouac’s work is autobiographical but the latter part of ‘Desolation Angels’ appears to be Jack fully exposing and critiquing himself. As in most everything else I’ve read, Kerouac’s pals were identified using pseudonyms that weren’t too difficult to translate if you are at all familiar with the other Beat writers of the time.(even their works-Nude Supper, Howling, Road) However, Kerouac references non-Beat writers of his day using their real names; Camus, Hemingway, Mailer, Satre among others. Kerouac is vary aware of the times he lives in and is not comfortable with how his fans or the media portrays the founders of the Beat generation and their works.
Aboard ship as he travels overseas after his latest round of adventures, Kerouac had time to reflect and adjust his outlook-
“What a crazy picture, maybe the picture of the typical American, sitting on a boat mulling over fingernails wondering where to really go, what to do next- I suddenly realize I had nowhere to turn at all. But it was on this trip that the great change took place in my life which I called a “complete turningabout” on that earlier page, turning from a youthful brave sense of adventure to a complete nausea concerning experience in the world at large, a revulsion in all the six senses.”
Leaving Tangiers by boat in 1957 on his way to spend time in France before returning to New York, Kerouac(of French Canadian descent himself) traveled with a number of French Army troops(involved in the Algerian conflict between the French government and Muslims at the time?). Here is one revealing scene documented in ‘Desolation Angels’–
“…three Mohammedan passengers who happened to be bunked up with us French troops suddenly leaped up in the middle of the night and jabbered at gay lunches out of paper bags-Ramadan. Can’t eat till a certain time. And I realized again how stereotyped is the “world history” given us by newspapers and officials. Here were three miserable skinny Arabs disturbing the sleep of one hundred and sixty-five French troops, armed at that, in the middle of the night, yet not one bucko or first lieutenant yelled out “Tranquille!” They all bore the noise and discomfort in silence that was well nigh respectful for the religion and the personal integrity of these Arab me. Then what was the war about?”
I wasn’t one to jump on the anti-French bandwagon due to their lack of willingness to align themselves with recent U.S. Middle-East policies, and I think Kerouac’s question-“Then what was the war about?” nailed the heart of the issue we struggle with today.
“it’s easy enough to understand that as an artist I need solitude and a kind of “do-nothing” philosophy that does allow me to dream all day and work out chapters in forgotten reveries that emerge years later in story from- In this respect, it’s impossible, since it’s impossible for everybody to be artists, to recommend my way of life as a philosophy suitable for everyone else- In this respect I’m like Rembrandt…So they didn’t expect Rembrandt to turn around and say to them: “You must live like I do, in the philosophy of solitude, there’s no other way.” So in the same way I was searching for a peaceful kind of life dedicated to contemplation and the delicacy of that, for the sake of my art(in my case prose, tales) (narrative rundowns of what I saw and how I saw) but also I searched for this as my way of life, that is, to see the world from the viewpoint of solitude and to mediate upon the world without being imbroglio’d in its actions, which have by now become famous for their horror & abomination- I wanted to be a Man of Tao, who watches the clouds and lets history rage beneath. But I never dreamed, and even in spite of my great determination, my experience in the arts of solitude, and my poverty’s freedom- I never dreamed I’d be taken in too by the world’s action- I didn’t think it possible that-”
In the end Kerouac fell short of finding whatever it was he was seeking, but we are left with the documented glory of his attempts.