Editorial: Andre Deutsch, London (1966, primera edición).
Introducción: Seymour Krim.
Desolation Angels is Jack Kerouac’s strongest novel since On the Road, and his most eagerly awaited. Begun in the mid-50s, completed in 1961, and thereafter passed from hand to hand in the American literary underground until the tattered manuscript reached the American publisher in 1964, this book has already acquired a reputation as a candid account of the key figures of the Beat Generation and of the crucial year which brought them together in San Francisco and Mexico in 1956-57.
Perhaps the closet comparison is with The Sun Also Rises and A Moveable Feast. Like Hemingway, Kerouac made the literary history about wich he is writing, and like Hemingway he forged a new style in which to convey the experience.
All the leading figures of the Beat Generation appear in this novel, and what the reader witnesses is the way in which these eople, obsessed by art, self-investigation and ideas, became aware of theselves and their own attitudes, and crystallized into a group expressing, many of their contemporaries’ feelings which had hitherto been hushed up or considered improperfor literature. And the man who is writing might be called the crystallizing agent: the Big Daddy of Hip, the writer who achieved a rhythm close jazz, a pace like the actual movement of the mind, and a voice which has penetrated to a larger number of young people than has been reached by anyone else fo his generation.
A Line Must Be Drawn
f it were in fact a novel, and if the prototypes were at all interesting, and if it succeeded with some craft and art in playing the game of identity, Jack Kerouac’s indifferently awaited “Desolation Angels” might appeal to our basest nature as a roman à clef. But if the term is to retain a shred of meaning, the book is not a novel, whatever the dust jacket may proclaim; and the characters are as fatuous in life as in art; and, as if to deny us even a low pleasure, Kerouac goes to considerable pains to identify his friends and business associates, stopping just short of spelling their names correctly. And for future historians of defunct movements who after plumbing the archives still do not know the poet of (as it is here) “Howling” or the author of “Nude Supper,” Seymour Krim provides the key in his exegetical introduction.
Perhaps none of this would much matter, if only the book were a fresh departure, instead of merely another version of the single, interminable matter if only the book were a fresh book that Kerouac has been writing all these years. Depressingly, he is celebrating life again–with ruthless inclusiveness, down to the last molecule. The last, the final one: “Happy, happy, the little gasoline fumes,” eulogizes. Gagging, one draws the line.
A line more like a noose, for something larger is at stake here than yet another bad book. At style falls with this book, a way of writing, a kind of sensibility. The diaster is general. When the jangling note was first sounded in “On the Road,” it had, if nothing else, a certain weirdness to commend it; but the spurious new soon fades and dies. What vitality there may have been spent itself in its first expression; thereafter it died and died. Yet so much clamor accompanied its dying that some people persuaded themselves that it lived, giving rise to the odd literary theory that, if only you beat it frenziedly enough, it is possible to return a corpse to life.
The fervency of Kerouac’s belief is not without its dogged heroism. In book after book, he has flailed away with undiminished vigor; indeed, with increasing gladness of heart, restlessly following his multifoliate vision, listening with a fixed smile to his own voice and no other, declining valiantly to traffic in the usual amenities of prose. Grammar, syntax, apostrophes and the conscious exercise of intelligence are all–and equally–the anathema to art. To overuse the dash in the manner of Victorian schoolgirls is, apparently, to assert the freedom of the creative spirit; and, conversely, to punctuate less vividly and more accurately is to submit to the brutal force of the State, the dead hand of Tradition.
Even to use words accurately is an intolerable restraint of freedom. Besides, “fulsome,” as in “fulsome breasts and thighs,” sounds so much fuller than “full,” say.
Sound determines so much for Kerouac. Admiration signifies poesy, and a chance to employ a fertile skill at it drives him to ecstasy, then past it. Past it to a kind of echolalia: the moon not only “yellows,” it “mellows” as well, all in the same soft, ascending movement. And when the sound “poop” occurs, who could resist balancing it with “oop”? Not Kerouac.
Ecstasy (“Ecstasy Pie” is the sobriquet of his favorite lady), rapture, a strenuously induced euphoria–this, as always, is the prevailing tone of Kerouac’s book, when it is not wistful, elegiac, or simply dejected. That is, the book is either high or hungover, as it were. Indeed, Kerouac must be the last remaining convert to the playful old notion that art results from the spontaneous combustion of the unconscious. Otherwise stated: anything goes.
With remorseless exuberance, Kerouac continues the vast, inconsequential epic of himself and his friends, no longer even attempting to disguise memoir with the trappings of fiction, and offering this as the sacred book of the Movement, the canonical work. Here we are told of the legendary time he went up into the mountain as a fire-watcher, there to confront the All-in-One–and all in a chanting lyricism, sodden with simulated mysticism, hilarious with solecisms.
Then to the inevitable road again, first to North Beach, then to Mexico, then back past, then on to Tangier, Paris, London, and back to America. Where not? Ah, God, those were joyous days, back in ’57. Allen and Gregory stripping naked at private parties, small and large, hi-jinks on public platforms, anywhere, everywhere. Peter urinating in the street–just like that. That glorious whore house in Mexico City. Those never-to-be-forgotten pads and ah! those girls, always home, ready, waiting patiently, like so many Penelopes, no matter how long the Rover Boys were away.
Kerouac-Duluoz-Ti Jean–the author in several of his epic manifestations–goes all the way to Tangier, Morocco (he is careful to specify, lest we confuse it with some other Tangier) to drink at the fount of William Burrough’s wisdom. On the evidence, he might have spared himself the long, hot voyage; and as far as London and Paris, they seem so like North Beach and the Lower East Side, one feels quite at home.
To put it another way: nothing changes, or has changed. Aging, Kerouac grows younger. The prose still leaps up and down, overjoyed to be itself; the boys and girls arrive and depart with inexhaustible energy; everything dissolves in the everlasting sea of confusion. At no time does Kerouac exult more than when he strikes a particularly infelicitous chord. If only he were putting us on; but no, he is beyond compare the most sincere writer we have.
Some Cassandras have climbed to notice, over the last decade, some flagging in the impulse of the unfortunately named Beat Generation. Now the last lingering doubt may be put to rest, for there can be no recovering from this final assault.
Jack Kerouac King of the Beats
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