"What I'd learned on the solitary mountain all summer, the Vision on Desolation Peak, I tried to bring down to the world and to my friends in San Francisco, but they, involved in the strictures of time and life, rather than the eternity and solitude of mountain snowy rocks, had a lesson to teach me themselves— Besides, the vision of the freedom of eternity which I saw and which all wilderness hermitage saints have seen, is of little use in cities and warring societies such as we have— What a world is this, not only that friendship cancels enmity, but enmity doth cancel friendship and the grave and the urn cancel all—"
— Jack Kerouac, Desolation Angels
Desolation Angels, by Jack Kerouac, directly follows the plot of The Dharma Bums, beginning where that novel ended, with 63 days of solitude on Desolation Peak in the Cascade Range of Washington State. Its two books, "Desolation Angels" and "Passing Through," (composed of several "parts" and many short numbered chapters) depict one of the last high times of Kerouac's life, before the publication of On the Road and the madness of fame. Like Kerouac's other works, it is an autobiography, history of the Beat Generation, and window into the mind of Jack Kerouac. Its central theme is religion, as Kerouac further explores Buddhism and attempts to meld its teachings into the background of Catholicism, the religion of his birth.
According to Joyce Johnson's (Kerouac's lover during the time period during and after "Passing Through New York") introduction, Kerouac originally planned to have the two parts of the novel published separately, but since they cover consecutive time periods, they were ultimately placed in one volume.
Desolation Angels: Desolation in Solitude and Desolation in the World
The first book, "Desolation Angels," begins with "Desolation in Solitude." Drawn from his journals, it is probably the most experimental part of the novel, with Kerouac sketching his surroundings and exploring his emotions and spiritual thoughts. As in Big Sur, solitude begins to take its toll on Kerouac, who longs to rejoin his friends in San Fransisco. This non-linear and highly sensory "part" was a bit tough to get through, perhaps because its experimentalism opens the book, before the reader has become reaccustomed to Kerouac's style. It just takes a bit more concentration.
Part two, "Desolation in the World," is perhaps the most traditionally "Kerouacian" of the novel. Recounting his trip down from Desolation Peak's solitude and through Seattle, and following the exploits of Kerouac's friends in the San Francisco Renaissance, it is the liveliest and most upbeat part of the book. Kerouac attempts to bring the religious insights he has gained in solitude back with him. Most importantly, he wants to experience life as an observer, detached and beatific. He wants to "pass through" life. The quote that opens this writeup is from the first chapter of "Desolation in the World," and summarizes the philosophical standpoint of the first book of Desolation Angels.
Of more historical interest are Kerouac's descriptions of the lives of the heroes of the Beat Generation, almost all of whom appear under pseudonyms in Desolation Angels. Allen Ginsberg (Irwin Garden, in the novel), Gregory Corso (Raphael Urso), Peter Orlovsky (Simon Darlovsky), and Neal Cassady (Cody Pomeray) occupy central positions in "Desolation in the World," with Lucien Carr (Julien) and William S. Burroughs (Bull Hubbard) enter into the second book, "Passing Through." Gary Snyder (Jarry Wagner), Philip Whalen (Ben Fagan), Norman Mailer, and even Savador Dali (whom Kerouac meets in "Passing Through New York") are minor characters. Kerouac's generally upbeat descriptions of their adventures are a joy to read.
Passing Through: Through Mexico, Through New York, Through Tangiers, France, and London, and Through America Again
"Passing Through" tells of Kerouac's trips through the world. He alternates between solitude, as he takes off alone on wild trips, and companionship, as Ginsberg, Corso, and Orlovsky follow him hot on his heels. In Mexico he lives with a friend (almost a doppleganger) of William Burroughs', an old junky/thief named William Garver (Bull Gaines). The similarities between this man and Burroughs are so great that I at first thought Kerouac was writing about Burroughs. In the time before Ginsberg and company come to join him Kerouac actually finishes writing the first half of Desolation Angels, referring to it (always using pen-names—Ginsberg's Howl is "Howling" and Burroughs' Naked Lunch is "Nude Supper") as "Angels in Desolation." The contrast between the upbeat tone of "Desolation Angels" and the more melancholy "Passing Through" is thus explained, with the first written before fame and the second much later.
Part two of "Passing Through," "Passing Through New York," tells of a brief stay in New York before a trip to Burroughs in Tangiers. Here we meet Lucien Carr (Julien) and learn a little about the New York Beat scene. "Passing Through Tangiers, France, and London" gives a welcome glimpse into the life of William Burroughs at the time when he was writing Naked Lunch, though Kerouac's trip through Europe is marred by a depression that culminates during an opium overdose. His return to America in "Passing Through America Again" leaves the book on a sad note, as he tries to move his beloved mother from Florida to California, where she is isolated from her family. She returns home, and Kerouac loses his hope of having a more permanent home with his mother in California. Though On the Road (Simply Road in the novel) has just been published and Kerouac is destined for fame, he ends the book with the words, "A peaceful sorrow at home is the best I'll ever be able to offer the world, in the end, and so I told my Desolation Angels goodbye. A new life for me."
Sadly for him, the world demanded more, and Kerouac never found peace during his lifetime. We can only hope that he has found peace in whatever came next.