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Our Gang

Desolation Angels

by Jack Kerouac
Coward McCann, 384 pp., $5.95

To my mind, Kerouac Country is the strangest stretch of the imagination any American has taken since Al Capp produced Dogpatch and Slobbovia. With the appearance of On the Road almost a decade ago, and the subsequent follow-up “novels,” Kerouac Country became holy ground for a multitude of epigoni or publicists, and, of course, fair game for others. As anyone knows who has been there, the territory sprawls like a metaphysical comic strip, winding its way in and out of Buddha’s navel, “passing through” the neon-lit ant hills of Manhattan, the sun-lit highways of the Southwest, the summit happy camaraderie of Frisco, then back like a homing bird to New England, to Lowell, Massachusetts, to one’s birthplace, one’s roots.

Rightly enough, Kerouac can be considered the first, and certainly the best, of our visionary L’il Abners. The first to set down the sound of a particular generation, and the first to “put down” the institutional values of the Fifties, the fringe benefits and the swimming pool in the backyard. Muscular, moody, simpatico, and not a little nuts, Kerouac accomplished the long jump past the exasperated intellect at just that moment when most intellectuals were in bed with Henry James. Sometimes he did it in the name of Zen, sometimes in the name of Old Glory, or of Sex and Art (“No pause to think of proper word but the infantile pileup of scatalogical buildup words till satisfaction is gained…”). In any case, he did it, and forged a new temper, a new cry: Give me personal, vagabondage autonomy, or give me mass media hypnosis. A choice has got to be made! In Kerouac Country, that cry recurs like a commercial.

Oddly, though Kerouac seems not to hear: he never makes the choice, any choice. His mission is always to “dig” everyone, everything, highbrow or cornpone, friend and foe. “We’re all friends and enemies, now stop it, stop fighting, wake up, it’s all a dream, look around, you dream, it’s not really the golden earth that hurts us when you think it’s the golden earth that hurts us, it’s only the golden eternity of blissful safety—Bless the little fly…” So a certain monotony, a certain sadness or despair ensues. From book to book, the same people and scenes appear, disappear, reappear. The same apostrophes lunge forward like pinballs, only to go limp like raindrops. “Mad” and “sad,” Kerouac’s favorite copulating adjectives, after a while refuse to reproduce. The Whitmanesque and Wolfean effects go blank, and the “Am Alone” Zen and “Blakean groaning” take over.

Naturally, in Kerouac Country nothing ever happens, because everything is happening, all at once. Everybody “rolls,” usually down the meat grinder: the rucksack buddies, the chicks with the pony tails or the ghoulish sighs, the bearded saints, alternately exultant and blue, always getting busted, the sack-artists at the bottlecrashing parties (“Kiss my thighs in darkness the pit of fire”), the fizzed-out musicians. Some have minds: “intellectual as hell and know all about Pound without being pretentious or talking too much about it, they are very quiet, they are very Christlike.” They stare. Eventually, in Kerouac Country everyone does an awful lot of staring.

Kerouac’s work, of course, should be read as his letters to the world, verbal splotches which somehow are a Rorschach of the times. In them one can see the contemporary candy-striped fantasia: movieland and motels, jazz and the orgasm, hot rods, junk, and communal pads, or the outsider roughing it on Mount Hiawatha. But being letters they tend towards the tiresome and the incoherent, full of titanic recalls and a jumbo-sized sensibility, and yet for all that they are also eager, confiding, “real.”

Anyway, as hardly needs saying, Kerouac is a writer to be indulged: you are rooting for him from the start, or it’s no go. Desolation Angels, his “confessional,” documents the time (1956-57) just prior to and right after the Beat Generation and the legend of Jack Duluoz (his alias) hit the world like fall-out. Besides the author, the other key figures (also pseudonymized) are identified in the preface as Ginsberg, Corso, Peter Orlovsky, and Burroughs. In the first section, Kerouac is a fire-watcher seated atop Desolation Peak in the Washington State mountains. He is seeking answers. Amidst the sorrowing, panoramic pastorals, we get peekaboo philosophy (“But I will be the Void, moving without having moved.” “I’ve fallen in love with God—Whatever happens to me down that trial to the world is all right with me because I am God and I’m doing it all myself, who else?”). Thence follows “desolation in the world,” the tumult of the West Coast, Mexico, New York, Tangiers, and Europe.

Bridging the stream between literature and life, Desolation Angels has its moments of Time (“…the reader should know that as an author I’d got to know many homosexuals—60 percent or 70 percent of our best writers (if not 90 percent) are queers, for man sex, and you get to meet them all and converse and swap manuscripts…”). And its moments of high comedy (Carlos Williams looking out of his living room window at the New Jersey traffic, saying “There’s lots of bastards out there,” and Kerouac adding: “I’ve wondered about that ever since”; or the rendezvous with Dali at the Russian Tea Room, or the uninvited visit to the home of Varnum Random (Randall Jarrell), where Kerouac cleans out the Jack Daniels and quite innocently causes the hostess to blush: “—where’d they ever hear the word fellatio!” he muses after his gaffe).

The portraits of his friends are fervent, magnificently muddled, hyperbolic and ambivalent. Ginsberg with his giggle, his goopy eyes, his “peculiar gazotsky run,” “flapping feet,” and sciencefiction theology: God is “That big radar machine in the sky, I guess…” Or hung-up, staring at walls: “I just want classical angels…Hand in hand it’s got to be!” Corso, ladies man and Shelley of the Mafia: “Ah, I think I’ll quit the poetry racket. It’s not gettin me nowhere. I want tiplet pigeons on my roof and a villa on Capri cr in Crete. I dont wanta have to talk to those dopey gamblers and hoods…When I meet Kirk Douglas I dont wanta have to apologize.” Burroughs, pot smoking raconteur, with his machete and his great neutral insolence, striding through a bunch of Arabs (“Just brush em aside, son, dont take no shit from them little pricks”), explaining The Naked Lunch (“Dont ask me—I get these messages from other planets—I’m apparently some kind of agent from another planet but I havent got my orders clearly decoded yet”), tossing chicken bones over his shoulder at the elegant El Paname, or breaking down, crying because of an unresolved, unrequited relationship. Finally Orlovsky, youngest of the gang, part-time ambulance driver, full of ice cream sodas, lust, and lollypop idealism. He yells: “The world is a place of infinite charm! Give everybody love and they’ll give it right back! I seen it!” Kerouac: “I know it’s true but I’m bored.” “But you can’t be bored, if you get bored we all get bored, if we all get bored and tired we all give it up, then the world falls down and dies!”

Conversations like that are frequent; Kerouac glum, and the boys saying: We gotta get you laid more. There are a variety of Daisy Maes. The real heat, however, is in the “pornographic” pages: a burlesque show, orgy swaps, wet dreams. In small doses, all of the characters and most of the scenes have a rambunctious “acting-out” charm: a day at the races, Market Street adventures in bars or supermarkets, an exploration of a Mexican ant village, etc. Kerouac’s descriptive powers are unfailing, if that’s the word: “And smiling over that in the Western night, stars waterfalling over his roof like drunkards stumbling downstairs with lanterns in their asses, the whole cool dew night I loved so much northern California (that rain-forest freshness), that smell of fresh green mint growing among tangled rubbery weeds and flowers.”

His almighty sincerity approaches bughouse, hilariously, heartbreakingly so when speaking of his mother: “the most important person in this whole story and the best.” “The only thing to do is be like my mother: patient, believing, careful, bleak, self-protective, glad for little favors, suspicious of great favors…make it your own way, hurt no one, mind your own business, and make your compact with God…Eternity, and the Here-and-Now, are the same thing.” She asks him: “What kind of fella is that Benny? No wife, no family, nothing to do? Does he have a job?” “He has a part time job inspecting eggs in the university laboratory up the hill. He earns just enough for his beans and wine. He’s a Buddhist!” “You and your Buddhists! Why dont you stick to your own religion?”

After the Luce publications smoke out the gang (at one point, Ginsberg projects a sort of Andy Hardy putsch: “I became a big dignified poet people listen to—I spend quiet evenings with my friends in my smoking jacket, perhaps—I go out and buy everything I want in the supermarket—I have a voice in the supermarket!“); after fame turns sour (at an early hip party, Kerouac sits disconsolately 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!”); and after the wayward flashes re Law Ridden America, spontaneity, and the Valley of Divine Illumination, the book concludes with the boys back in New York: “…and now we’re famous writers, more or less, but they wonder why I’m so sunk now, so unexcited, as we sit among all our published books and poems, tho at least, since I live with Memere in a house of her own miles from the city, it’s a peaceful sorrow. A peaceful sorrow at home is the best I’ll ever be able to offer the world…and so I told my Desolation Angels goodbye. A new life for me.”

In certain circles, the roaring lambs of Kerouac Country and the paper tigers of Mailer’s recent fiction (e.g., Stephen Rojack of An American Dream) are acclaimed as struggling, emblematic types, holding to the last heroic elements left in our culture. I’ve no quarrel with that, assuming that what is meant is ‘teen culture.’

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