DESOLATE ANGEL: Jack Kerouac, the Beats, and America by Dennis McNally
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DESOLATE ANGEL: Jack Kerouac, the Beats, and America

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KIRKUS REVIEW

McNally admits straight off that he regards Kerouac and Ginsberg and Burroughs and Snyder as ""spiritual ancestors. . . psychic pioneers""--and from this close identification and eager sympathy comes an occasional stylistic gaucherie. Lowell High, where Kerouac was a football star, ""was unmistakably a product of the Sing Sing school of architecture""; in c. 1930 Lowell, ""Two out of three workers. . . unemployed, cursed on street corners."" But the overkill generalizations that McNally shares with his models ultimately take nothing away from the fact that he has plugged closer into the circuit that produced Jack Kerouac than anyone who's previously tried it. He tags the mother-smother, the Catholicism, the xenophobia, the oh-so-crucial jazz (after hearing Lee Konitz play at Birdland, Kerouac jotted into his notebook: ""Blow As Deep As You Want To Blow""); Neal Cassady, Kerouac's ""brother"" in manic-energy, is given the ambiguous treatment he seems to deserve; and William Burroughs comes off not only familiarly spectral but also just faintly human. Unlike Ginsberg, McNally notes, Kerouac was not an intellectual bohemian: ""not cool but hot."" And the heat cooled during the years of neglect, was brutally refanned during all the ""beat-generation"" hoopla (which Kerouac was completely unequipped to handle, being, in Philip Whalen's words, a Buddhist ""with Edgar Guest sensibilities""). The destructive drinking began, the constant moving into new houses with the imprisoning M‚mˆre, and the final immolation into anti-Semitic, hopeless boorishness just as the Sixties were reaping all the life-style fruits of his earlier energies. Working mostly as a historian, McNally largely ignores the specific qualities of Kerouac's prose, which only adds to the myth at the expense of understanding the artist. But suppler than the first Charters biography, and much much better than the recent Gifford and Lee Jack's Book, McNally's book is the benchmark for further Kerouac and Beat studies (with some academic feed-in from Tytell's 1976 Naked Angels). When, toward the end, a psychiatrist acquaintance asked Kerouac, by then bloated and mostly gone, what he had wanted most from life, Kerouac answered, ""That God be justified."" Which just may be the surprising clue to the whole Beat phenomenon.

Pub Date: Aug. 20th, 1979
Publisher: Random House