Self-discovery in Desolation AngelsStripped to its barest essentials, Jack Kerouac’s novel Desolation Angels reads as a drug-induced stupor of casual sex (or fantasies thereof), mixed into a melting of jazz and poetry. The often-adolescent urges of Kerouac’s character Jack Duluoz, however, are mere episodes in the fast-paced, write-it-as-you-think-it, pre-literary notoriety phase in the life of a man who essentially founded the Beat generation. Though the overflowing stream of consciousness that comprises this book seems undoubtedly spontaneous, Desolation Angels actually examines, in a most straightforward and clearly organized manner, the state of human solitude. Zipping from a Forest Service mountaintop outpost to San Francisco, from Tangiers to London, and slipping from loneliness to jazz clubs full of “cats,” from a morphine addict’s room to the home of his knitting French Canadian mother, the angels of desolation take on varying shapes, ceaselessly trailing Duluoz/Kerouac.
The novel begins as Duluoz/Kerouac ascends Desolation Peak on Starvation Ridge in the High Cascades for a seventy-day job as a lookout for forest fires. He initially anticipates with relish the idea of a seclusion that will allow him to ponder “the meaning of all this existence and suffering and going to and fro in vain” without the distractions of friends, drugs or alcohol Yet as the days dissolve into each other endlessly, he begins to tire of the monotony of Desolation. The stark emptiness greeting him from his outlook reflects the vacuity of life as he sees it. Entitled “Desolation in Solitude,” this chapter records his mind patterns as he despairs over the “Void,” an uncertain entity that symbolizes an eternal, vast, indifferent force of …
…r undying devotion to him, and this seems to partially explain the source of his anger. He mourns the fact that a creature as wholesome and pure as she will inevitably grow old and die without leaving a mark on anyone but himself and his sister. Yet in accepting her mortality, he, for the first time in the book, finds an extended sense of peace. Throughout all of his earlier road trips and travels, he searched for serenity, only to be followed by Desolation. Here, finally, taking a bus across the country with strong yet innocent “Memere,” does he leave them behind.
In witnessing this change, the reader understands that constant movement cannot effect a sense of place, as Duluoz/Kerouac had thought throughout his transient excursions. Only facing our relationships with those we truly love can answer our questions regarding who we are in this mixed-up world.