‘It’s the beat generation, its béat, it’s the beat to keep, it’s the beat of the heart, it’s being beat and down in the world and like oldtime lowdown and like in ancient civilizations the slave boatmen rowing galleys to a beat and servants spinning pottery to a beat.’
Many are aware of the Beat Generation and its notoriety, but few know much else of it and its main characters, bar a name or two and that book… When reviewing Kerouac there is always the temptation to compare it to On the Road, however you have to be careful when doing so, because On the Road is certainly not the be all and end all of Kerouac. Sure it’s his most famous, and everyone’s heard of it, but it’s definitely not his best. Having said that though, Desolation Angels does merit certain comparisons to On the Road due to its road trip nature (in book two anyway).
So the novel is split into two books and it opens with a melancholic Kerouac gazing at Mt Hozomeen in his role of fire look-out, lamenting over ‘the void.’ I should say that for a fan, the first few chapters are beautiful. Vintage Kerouac, typically written in his flowing spontaneous prose. But it does carry on in the same vein for some 70 pages and slowly begins to grate on you. This first part is taken directly from his journal of the time he spent on the mountain and this much is evident as it is very journal-like, but it does drag on for a little too long so that by the end we just want him off the bloody mountain and back in civilisation. Kerouac is at his best with forward momentum in his narratives, when he gets lost in thought and memories it can get a little weighed down. Discussing this with a friend, he raised an interesting point about juxtaposition and the first book being slow and the second frantic. I see what he was saying, maybe it was all part of the plan but I am inclined to disagree. This is because I know that Kerouac initially wanted book two to be published as a standalone novel, so it feels almost like two halves of different novels stuck together in order to fill a quota.
That said, those are my only qualms. When he does get down it is brilliant. For anyone who loved On the Road, book two of Desolation Angels blows it out of the water. The pace picks up as he meets Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady and eventually Bill Burroughs. But even with the ripened speed and the resumption of normal life Kerouac is still withdrawn but now it is all the more revealing as we learn why. Passages on his need for solitude and the ‘search for peace as an artist’ allow us into the mind of the man. One of the main things about this book that I enjoyed so much was how revealing it was into Jack Kerouac himself. It is a brutally honest and emotional work.
Book two is where the On the Road lovers will be satisfied. The drug taking (which is a lot more explicit than in On the Road), freight train hopping antics begin, and the freedom that a generation identified with is once again present as they travel around on a whim looking for kicks in Mexico, New York and Tangiers. But it is also in book 2 where his depression really takes over and by the end, the Jack Kerouac everyone thinks they know becomes a different man. The book has so much depth to it than, it is hugely meditative and telling of the depression and separation Kerouac felt from the ‘hipsters’ and indeed his own friends of many years. There is a particularly poignant passage describing his resentment of the Beat Generation, calling it ‘all an enormous drag’ and ‘to think that I had so much to do with it.’ But that is the brutal honesty you get out of this book as he lays all his feelings on the page. As saddening as it may be, it is fascinating.
All in all it is a great and enlightening read that is only irritating because it takes so long to get going. Even if by the time it does you’re having such a good time you’ve forgotten all about book one.
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