I’ve long been drawn to lost books, hidden books, books that reverberate through an author’s career like subterranean bits of code. Kurt Vonnegut’s Canary in a Cathouse, Lynne Tillman’s Weird Fucks, Patti Smith’s Witt or Ha! Ha! Houdini! — each reads to me as a secret message, highlighting (or so it seems) a set of elemental concerns. This is especially the case with Jack Kerouac’s Old Angel Midnight, a prose poem (or a cycle of prose poems) written in five notebooks over three years, from 1956 to 1959. Partly, it’s the provenance: When I was a young reader, just discovering Kerouac, Old Angel Midnight was — along with Some of the Dharma, San Francisco Blues, and other then-unpublished works — the stuff of legend, a manuscript that seemed essential in some sense to the author’s canon but only marginally available if at all. Inspired by his friend Lucien Carr (the original title was Lucien Midnight), the text was published in two installments during Kerouac’s lifetime, parts 1−49 in the Spring 1959 issue of Big Table and the remaining 18 sections in Evergreen Review in 1964. It first came out in book form in 1973. My initial exposure came via snippets cited in biographies by Ann Charters and Gerald Nicosia, the latter of whom called it perhaps “the closet thing to Finnegans Wake in American literature,” although, he concluded, “the ultimate failure of the piece is due to its being too successful an imitation, for it lacks the original conception that distinguished the majority of his works.
Nicosia has a point: Old Angel Midnight is a pastiche (homage, even) to Finnegans Wake. But it is also something more than that, a tone poem, an extended stream of consciousness that aspires — Kerouac was nothing if not ambitious — to channel the breath of creation itself. “Friday afternoon in the universe,” the book begins, “in all directions in & out you got your men women dogs children horses pones tics perts parts pans pools palls pails parturiences and petty Thieveries that turn into heavenly Buddha — I know boy what’s I talking about case I made the world & had Old Angel Midnight for my name and concocted up a world so nothing you had forever thereafter make believe it’s real.” I fell in love with it the first time I read the words. Partly, it’s the felicity of the set-up, Friday afternoon in the universe, “workinmen on scaffolds painting white paint & ants merlying in lil black dens & microbes warring in yr kidney & mesaroolies microbing in the innards of mercery & microbe microbes dreaming of the ultimate microbehood which then ultimates outward to the endless vast empty atom which is this imaginary universe.” (There’s something accessible about this vision yet also cosmic, which is, of course, the whole idea. We tend to think of Kerouac as a road warrior, desperate for kicks and experience, but this is a misreading that deflects his actual concerns. His subject, rather, is consciousness, “the point of ecstasy,” he notes in On the Road, “that I always wanted to reach, which was the complete step across chronological time into timeless shadows, and wonderment in the bleakness of the mortal realm.” In Old Angel Midnight, he achieves this by stripping away even the loosest frame of narrative. “I’ve been finally doodling with an endless automatic writing piece,” he wrote to the novelist John Clellon Holmes in 1956, “which raves on and on with no direction and no story and surely that won’t do tho I’ll finish it anyway while doing other things . . . ”
Those “other things,” it turns out, are instructive, if only in what they suggest about Kerouac’s creative state of mind. Old Angel Midnight comes out of a run of odd work, ancillary (but not really), poetic more than narrative. It was directly preceded by The Scripture of the Golden Eternity, his attempt to write a Buddhist sutra, and before that by the long poem Mexico City Blues. During this period, he also wrote Some of the Dharma and two short novels, Visions of Gerard — about his older brother, who died in 1926 at age nine — and Tristessa, a love song of sorts for a Mexico City prostitute. All of these works are impressionistic, even the fiction, and all of them deal directly with the tragedy and transcendence of being alive. “Dying is ecstasy,” he writes early in Old Angel Midnight. And then: “I’m not a teacher, not a sage, not a Roshi, not a writer or master or even a giggling dharma bum I’m my mother’s son & my mother is the universe — ”
What we’re seeing is a shift away from storytelling toward something more like the direct transcription of experience. This suggests, I think, a key tension in Kerouac: the Buddhist intention, on the one hand, of being in the moment, juxtaposed against the writer’s intention to set it down. Kerouac knows everything is ephemeral, that we and all that surrounds us, “[t]he Mill Valley trees, the pines with green mint look . . . [t]he little tragic windy cottages” will disappear. It’s the source of his sadness, but also of his inspiration; his work represents a sustained attempt at self-preservation despite his understanding that nothing, really, can be preserved. That’s what makes Old Angel Midnight so vivid, because it is an attempt to record something close to pure perception, even as it recognizes the impossibility of the task. “Silence in my window now in the fullmoon of haiku,” Kerouac intones, “which goes OO yellow continent in a birdbath, April full moon which rattle the goldroom little death chair that never will collapse.”
Here, we get close to what I admire best about the book, its embrace of sound, of rhythm and music, of literature as aural in the most specific sense. As such, Old Angel Midnight is a record of listening, of hearing beyond, or beneath, language, of seeking to engage a cosmic beat. It’s not the only work of Kerouac’s to attempt this; his 1962 novel Big Sur ends with a long poem called “Sea: Sounds of the Pacific Ocean at Big Sur.” Yet like the fiction that contains it, “Sea” is an unconsoling effort; “But these waves scare me — ” Kerouac admits. “I am going to die / in full despair — ” Old Angel Midnight, on the other hand, is about acceptance . . . or better yet, about presence, about pause. It’s encoded in that opening gambit, Friday afternoon in the universe, “timeless to the ends of the last lightyear it might as well be getting late Friday afternoon where we start so’s old Sound can come home when worksa done & drink his beer & tweak his children’s eyes — ” That’s vintage Kerouac right there, down to the beer and the sentimentality, “but that’s alright,” he reassures us, “because now everything’ll be alright & we’ll soothe the forever boys & girls & before we’re thru we’ll find a name for this Goddam Golden Eternity & tell a story too.”