I began reading Desolation Angels on my 47th birthday (40 years and five weeks after Jack Kerouac died at the age of 47). I didn’t read any of his books until 2007, when I finally got round to reading On the Road. Perhaps reading Kerouac is my outlet in my mid-life crisis, but I think it makes more sense to read Kerouac in middle age, and Desolation Angels in particular drove that home for me. Kerouac was in his mid-30s when the events chronicled in Desolation Angels took place, and he was in his 40s when the book was published. There’s a weariness to the book—a weariness that I think a person in their 40s can fully appreciate. As with On the Road and Dharma Bums, Kerouac (in character as Jack Duluoz) is searching for something in Desolation Angels, but while there’s a palpable optimism in the first two that what is sought will be found, there’s a more pessimistic feel to the latter—that the search will not yield results, and only by not searching will one find happiness and success. This is clear at the beginning of the book as Duluoz/Kerouac realizes enlightenment is not going to be found in his hermitage atop Desolation Peak, where he has spent the summer working as a fire lookout (emulating fellow writers Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen). Desolation Angels draws to a close just as [On] The Road is published and Duluoz/Kerouac stands on the threshold of success and notoriety. Or is it the precipice? Kerouac/Duluoz realizes it is the latter, and anyone who has read Big Sur knows what is to come. But Duluoz/Kerouac cannot know the full consequences of success, of the impending doom (or can he?). His Beat friends don’t seem to be able to help him, and in a telling scene near the end of the book, even Cody Pomeray (Neal Cassady) realizes that his road buddy is changing, and not necessarily for the better. As Duluoz/Kerouac opens a box filled with copies of On the Road, success has arrived, but it will only be constraining and confining—Kerouac will be trapped in a world of his own making.
In the end, it’s Duluoz’s/Kerouac’s mother who is the sage. The humble French-Canadian-Catholic matriarch is probably the best Buddhist he encounters. In his words, she “speaks of tranquility” as she advises him that home is with family, and all that one needs is “… fun, good food, good beds, nothing more.” Sage advice for all of us who chase material and professional success only to wake up one day, one year realizing we were on the wrong road.