On the Road chronicles Jack Kerouac's years traveling the North American continent with his friend Neal Cassady, "a sideburned hero of the snowy West." As "Sal Paradise" and "Dean Moriarty," the two roam the country in a quest for self-knowledge and experience. Kerouac's love of America, his compassion for humanity, and his sense of language as jazz combine to make On the Road an inspirational work of lasting importance.
For me, this is how On the Road should have been - a wild journey of youth that would take me with it to pockets of America I'd never heard of before, where I'd feel the dirt in my pores and the heartache in my belly. Instead, it was endless of pages of nothingness - car rides between towns and cities that were rarely described in any detail (save for the Mexico portion in the last 50 pages), wild nights out that never amounted to anything of any interest, a multitude of passing characters that were never formed beyond a few cursory sentences.
I understand that this 'wild' portrayal of youth would have been quite shocking in the 1950s, and so the stir it caused when it was first published is wholly understandable. The literary side of my brain also gets what Kerouac wanted to achieve with his prose - to create a rush and franticness that echoed the frenzied energy of the young generation coming of age and looking for kicks. But this book took me nowhere. Perhaps for my generation the novel is no longer radical. Perhaps some books 'date' in the way that favourite records sometimes sound tired in future decades.
For me, much of the book was like listening to a drunk teenager babble on endlessly about the epic night out they've just had. My eyes were glazing over - I had that 'I guess you had to be there...' feeling.
If I was beamed down from Mars knowing nothing of it's classic status in American literature (and hence not feeling obliged to revere it with plaudits which demonstrate that I'm clever enough to enjoy it), I'd have one word for it - dull.
So, at the risk of putting myself out there as a literary Neanderthal, for me that's exactly what On the Road was - endlessly dull.
So you can understand that, revisiting this as a 38-year-old dude who says things like "Man, it's 11, I'm beat" and means "tired," I was not at all keen to revisit this. It's a young man's book. Oh God, getting drunk and talking about the snake of the world...remember when that felt dangerous?
But it's not totally silly, actually - I mean, it is, but not all silly things are pointless and there's nothing wrong with a snake of the world, intrinsically.
And to make matters worse, I'd just slogged through nearly half of Tropic of Cancer, which is terrible, and at 38 I'm aware that On The Road is just another in a long tradition of bohemian literature going back at least as far as De Quincey. And I was afraid On The Road would turn out to be as pompous and careless as Tropic of Cancer turns out to be, just a guy masturbating his talent onto the face of the world, which makes a spectacle but does nobody any good.
But the thing with Tropic of Cancer is that Henry Miller is essentially an asshole, and Kerouac isn't. Kerouac is eager to please, to connect, and On The Road turns out to be much less annoying than I was afraid it would be. It's still a young man's book! Don't get me wrong! But it's...it's really kindof sweet. Kerouac doesn't have Miller's raging ego: he lets Dean Moriarty take center stage. (Imagine a world where Miller isn't the lead actor in his own drama!) On The Road is a sputtering grasp at the idea of the Great American Novel, and while it doesn't come anywhere near grabbing the raft, it's worth reading.
I see it, now, as a warning. Kerouac was hitting 30 when he wrote it, and you sense a desperation: "Where is my story?" You sense some manipulation, too. Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady) is a mentally unstable man, and I think the Beats used him for stories. I was inspired by him when I was young; now I feel a deep sadness for him. I see that filthy-bandaged thumb. Neither Kerouac nor Cassady lived to 50. I had a good time when I was young; I'm glad I've graduated to different kinds of good times now.
I should say, Howl covers basically the same territory and is considerably better. All the things you can feel Kerouac striving for throughout On The Road...Ginsberg is trying just as hard, but he's achieving it in a wonderful, authoritative way. The sense you get from Kerouac is, "Is this good? Am I doing it? Have I got it right?" And your answer is yes, dude, nice work. But here's what Ginsberg says: "HERE IT IS."
But either way. All you beatniks out there, go out and hitchhike and be broke and desperate in the vastness of the world. It's a kick.
I think everyone wanted to jump on the "cool" bandwagon and so it got labeled some things that it isn't -- 1. Good Writing. 2. Cool. 3. Classic.
If you react like me, you get over your surprise and find yourself really engaged with a rollicking good tale about life, the road, life on and off the road, and a thousand and one other little details that make for a great, great story.
Very well written, some of the sentences stopped me in my tracks. And while I enjoyed the "traveling" parts of the story more than the "stopping" parts, I wouldn't have missed any of the journey.
The novel, apparently written on a continuous role of paper 120 pages long, during a two week blitz, describes Sal's journeys across America and his interactions with the people that come into his life along the way. While his lifestyle is definitely not something you want to emulate on the way to a Harvard education, its wildness and carefree (some might say hedonistic) ways will stir the spirit of adventure in even the most rational of hearts. Sal hitchhikes, rides buses, pays for rides and steals cars - actually, his idol, Dean Moriarty does the stealing - and criss-crosses the country several times. Most of his travels involve the West but a side-trip to New Orleans and a final excursion to Mexico city are also included. Along the way he drinks, gets high, encounters a wide variety of women and generally lives a life of dissipation and dissolution. Sal's zest for life's experiences is somewhat tempered by an undercurrent of doubt. Characters are gritty and full of life but often terribly flawed. There is a subtle ambiguity which colours Sal's view of the world. He is at once in love with life but often seems vaguely disturbed by it.
A friend once told me that it was a good thing that troubled souls wrote about their experiences. That way we could experience things without having to live them too. Sal's travels are something like that: Best experienced second hand - unless, of course, you too are a troubled soul.
Holy hell on wheels, Dean Moriarty. Frantic, ecstatic, twitching, gasping, yelling, red-eyed, good-for-nothing, beatnik John the Baptist. Who the hell are you preparing a way for? In the end, Sal Paradise, the true Bodhidharma with more than Dean’s two seconds of attention span: someone who digs existence long-term and delivers his charges to the Promised Land before entering himself. I realized rereading On the Road that in the intervening years, I subconsciously inserted constant unflinching Benzedrine use into every other memory; in part because of Kerouac’s real life use discussed in the Introduction and in part to explain even an infinitesimal fraction of Moriarty’s spastic kicks-grabbing, epiphanic, “Whooo-eeee” “IT”-jonesing, orgasmic hilarity. Aside from Sal, the heroes are America, Mexico, the earth, human beings and existence. When on the road, Sal is a new Beat version of a Steinbeck hero down to the dusty Okies with whom he picks cotton. Long-suffering, indomitable Sal abandoned delirious with dysentery in Mexico City by the exploding angel he follows to catch burning, falling, fizzling sparks of truth before they burn out. Now that I’ve finished, I’ve resolved to do two things: reread The Dharma Bums, the Subterraneans and Big Sur, to prove to myself that there is indeed Zen in Kerouac; and to listen to the jazz artists whom Sal and Dean dig so righteously everywhere they can be found.
To my mind, this is basically the documentation of one somewhat pretentious and immature young man's hero worship of a moronic, abusive young man who treats everyone around him like shit. I believe Sal has some kind of realisation about this in the end, but for me that is too little, too late.
Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac holds an air of mystery even to this day. For generations he has been regarded as one of coolest cats of the 1950s. On The Road was an overnight success and an instant cult classic. There is a vibe just holding this book.
On the Road is an anthem for the young, the restless, the daring. It taps into a longing for freedom, a desire to roam, a quest for life and all it has to offer. The language is nonchalant and haphazard giving the story a reckless vibe. Case in point, who says "balled the jack" anymore? Kerouac captures the days when you could take a flatbed truck, load it with a group of reckless youth and roar across the country hellbent for the coast of anywhere, exhilarated just to be alive.
The ultimate vibe I got from this novel is that it's a watered-down version of Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas. They're both watershed counter-cultural novels narrated by the author's alter-egos, but Fear And Loathing is just better in every way. It's shorter, more tightly edited, louder, more exciting, and less prone to philosophical rambling. Kerouac will not shut the fuck up about all the meandering mystic bullshit him and Neal Cassady talked about on their beatnik roadtrips, and I just didn't care. In a way it's appropriate, because I'm sure the counter-culture revolution of the 60's was crazier and more exhilarating than that of the 40's. Am I myself rambling? Is it fair to say that a novel written 20 years later was better than this one? I don't know or care, because it's well past midnight and I have work at eight and I just spent two hours straight pushing through the last 90 pages of this book because I wanted it finished. Always a good sign!