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Desolation Angels Relié – 1966
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THOSE AFTERNOONS, those lazy afternoons, when I used to sit, or lie down, on Desolation Peak, sometimes on the alpine grass, hundreds of miles of snowcovered rock all around, looming Mount Hozomeen on my north, vast snowy Jack to the south, Lire la première page
Couverture | Copyright | Table des matières | Extrait | Quatrième de couverture
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Desolation Angels is the book for the second group of people. It is tortuous at times-- like his solitude atop the mountain staring Hozomeen in the face every morning which reveals Kerouac's own struggle to deal with himself and his past. But I believe among all of his novels it is the most rewarding. The book takes us to all of his major haunts- London, New York, San Fran, Paris, the Mediterranean- with many of his closest friends - Neal, Allen, Williams S. Burroughs, Joyce. There's even a small part where Kerouac is face to face with Salvador Dali.
If you are looking for Kerouac-the-humanist at his best- this is the novel for you. Where the novel lacks in adventure (On the Road) and joyous affirmation (Dharma Bums) it makes up in sheer descriptive character study and sad observation, of a man trying to grapple with what he sees as the emptiness of all things, and the reality of his own personal struggles with life, love, and death.
In this book Jack goes on the road (with Mom), has sex with a fourteen year old mexican prostitute, meets up with a Neal (Cody) whom is a far fly from his On the Road days and is tied down with a wife + three kids and a job, meets Salidore Dali + William Carlos WIlliams + Carl Sandburg, gets his book published, is constantly compulsively depressed, has a paradigmatic consciousness flip after a huge dose of opium, meets up with junkie Burroughs in Tangiers (whom is lovelorn over Ginsburg), and kicks Buddhism down a notch for a more hardcore return to Christianity.
As others have noted, this book follows directly after the Dharma Bums and that book should be read first. What follows is Jack's experiences on the mountain which, contrary to his expectations in Dharma Bums, is almost like a nightmare prison sentence.
After he leaves the mountain, we enter into the first half of the book (his return to California), which is a bit ponderous and slow (but never boring). We are treated to a tortureous description of his day of betting at a race track with Neal and Corso.
The book picks up speed bigtime when he goes back on the road and then travels internationally.
His prose is brilliant and poetic and his observations remarkable and I think this book is brilliant; but it is also tremendously sad, deeply frusterated and lost, spiritually drained and destitute, and there is little ecstacy to be had. By the end of the book, and with the return of his compulsive obsession with Christianity, one can really sense the beginning of his psychosis and alcoholism and mommy obsession which would spell his death by age fourty seven.
I'm not sure to whom this book should be recommended- for I'm not sure whom would care about this descent of an icon for joy. It should definetly be read by those whom have read On the Road and the Dharma Bums, but also by those whom think that the counter cultural movements were all done by joy seeking thrill addicts without a care in the world. After reading this book, it would seem that caring is something that was not is short supply amongst these bands of fellow travelers on the way.
Also, those whom felt that the beats were all leftist radicals, anarchists and communists would be very suprised to read in this book that Jack almost seems like a rightist in many regards. He reads a book on the atrocities of communism on the mountain, he constantly is remarking about totalitarian regimes (in particular- Russia), brings up Mao (at a time when some on the left felt he may have been a hero and the crimes against "reactionaries" hadn't yet come into light) and Castro (while others went off to visit Cuba jack said "I'm not concerned with the Cuban Revolution, I'm concerned with the American Revolution.") and even Zapata is discussed in negative diatribes. He was also a fan of Ike. He spends far more time bitching about leftist than he does about rightists. He also has some special scorn put aside for the common hipster, the mass of "beats" whom came after.
Very moving, sad, beautiful, profound, funny, poetic- a treasure from a real man at the start of his turn into a caricature by the mass media. By the end, when he drags his mother to california and he doesn't have hardly a nickel, he truely does seem like a little boy lost, crushed still by the death of his brother Gerard and his father whom he found, crushed by all the love lost, by all the dreams evaporated.
Evey place he goes, he believes that happiness may lie at the next stop- but once he gets there, there is only sadness once again. At first he wants to return to the mountain on which he'd felt so trapped, but by the end of the book, he just wants to return to the womb.
The most problematic section is the first one, "Desolation in Solitude." I understand that Kerouac wanted to convey the sheer insanity of his isolation as a lookout, but considering that he already devoted about 30 pages to this in Dharma Bums, he essentially retreads the same mystic nonsense for another 70 pages without giving much new insight into his experience. The one interesting bit that comes out of the whole ordeal is the gradual dissatisfaction that Kerouac feels for Buddhism (which, through his interpretation, seems to fall a bit close to nihilism) and his reacceptance of Christianity.
But after this first section, things pick up and Kerouac delivers one painfully sad and and transcendentally beautiful insight after another (one of my favorites: his frustration at receiving a $3 jaywalking ticket on the way to a job, costing him half his day's pay-- but you have to read the way he puts it to understand, of couse). It is worth noting that Desolation Angels really is two different books written almost 5 years apart. The first half he wrote while in Mexico City (during events he describes in the second half, Passing Through), while the second half was written in Florida (I think) while he lived with his mother. Thus, Kerouac's interpretation of life radically shifts when you begin the 2nd half. He also suddenly becomes a lot more candid, talking about his life as a writer, his use of drugs, and the homosexuality of his peers in a lot more detail and honesty than he could manage before. It is also important to understand that "Desolation Angels" (part 1) was written BEFORE On the Road was published, while "Passing Through" (part 2) was written AFTER. His sudden brush with fame can probably account for this shift in perspective.
I don't want to go into too much detail about the multitude of spiritual revelations within the book, as its better to hear it out of the mouth of the mystic. Reading the book, one can't help but notice that Kerouac, even when past his literary and spiritual peak, was not the embittered and impotent wreck that he's usually considered-- not based on his touching insights in "Passing Through." He clearly has a lot of faith in humanity, and of the necessity that people act out of love and respect rather than hate and fear. Many critics quickly dismiss Desolation Angels as a "lesser work," but I think that if you're willing the persist through the dense opening section, the rewards are nearly as profound as those of his more famous novels.
The pre-eminent voice of the Beat movement, who both gave it its name and disavowed his involvement, is at his most exposed and honest self in this work. This is not a book to read for a relaxing afternoon, in my opinion. This is a book that will burden you - but you'll be better for it.