Desolation Angels

Jack Kerouac

Desolation Angels

Jack Kerouac

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Desolation Angels Summary

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Desolation Angels is a 1965 semi-autobiographical novel by American author Jack Kerouac. The novel follows Jack Duluoz who works as a fire control officer at Desolation Peak in the mountains of northwest Washington state. The novel closely traces Kerouac’s own coming-to-consciousness as a writer of the Beat Generation, epitomized by its spontaneous, confessional style, countercultural themes, and emphasis on radical individuality. As Jack, an unpublished poet and novelist, shares his work with other writers, the support of these characters compels him to turn his life fully towards the project of writing. The novel features friends who closely resemble real-life Beat Generation writers, including Neal Cassady, William Burroughs, and Alan Ginsberg, the latter known for Howl, the most defining work of the Beat Generation.

The novel begins in the Washington mountains, where Jack Duluoz (or Kerouac) has taken a job as a fire lookout at Desolation Peak. He took the job not because he has an interest in a career as a forester, but because it affords him the opportunity to sit still and write as few other jobs allow. During his time at Desolation Peak, he writes prolifically on the novel that will one day become his first published work, On the Road. Before moving to Washington, Duluoz had roamed nomadically between San Francisco and New York, taking up whatever odd jobs he could find. His writings in Washington mark a meditative turn in his life, but after a while, he realizes that whatever transcendental life one could have in the wild is not equivalent to a life in society.

Duluoz returns to San Francisco, ambivalent about whether to choose a life of community or a life of solitude. This ambivalence signals a deeper, growing disenchantment with the tenets of Buddhism to which he previously subscribed. Duluoz reunites with his San Francisco friends, who make up the core of the Beat movement. After indulging in drugs and alcohol for a few weeks and getting little writing done, he moves on to Mexico, hoping to be alone to write. There, he reconnects with a friend who once showed special promise as a philosopher and public intellectual; he is disheartened to discover that the friend is now paralyzed by an intractable addiction to morphine. Not long after, Duluoz’s friends from San Francisco arrive in Mexico to join him. Duluoz appreciates their continued company, but also finds it suffocating to his creative life. The Beats group explores Mexico City, performing in bars, cafes, and other meeting places. When their tour ends, Duluoz decides to hit the road and return to New York City.

When he settles in in New York, Duluoz is contacted by his friend, Irwin (a fictionalized Allen Ginsberg). Irwin tells Duluoz that his written works have value whether he knows it or not, convincing him to connect to the New York writing scene. Duluoz dusts off the countless manuscripts and journals he has in storage. After submitting work to different publishers, one helps him publish his first novel, On the Road (the same novel that Kerouac himself first published). In the years that follow, the other Beat poets start to gain a fandom. Quite a few of them skyrocket to literary and cultural fame, something they never anticipated. The Beat Generation becomes definitive of the 1950s counterculture era, whose wake extends into Kerouac’s present day.

While writing Desolation Angels, Kerouac decided not to use the names of his real-life friends, after his publishers objected that it would lead to publishing conflicts. Though the book is almost totally stripped of explicit real-life attributions, they can be easily inferred through Kerouac’s vivid prose and knack for characterization. The novel is thus seen as a loving monument to the Beat movement’s faces and events by one of its founding fathers.
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