On the Road – Jack Kerouac
I finished reading the true modern classic On the Road by Jack Kerouac a few days ago and I really enjoyed it, but I’m not sure if I like Sal and especially Dean the way I usually like (or even love) main characters of novels I like (I’ll explain why in a minute).
The novel came out in 1957 when Kerouac was thirty-five years old, years after his adventures on the road. The reason it took so long for him to write this testament of the Beat generation was because he struggled to find his own voice for a while. When Kerouac was seventeen he decided to become a writer because he was influenced by Sebastian Sampas, a local young poet. Jack London and Tom Wolfe were big influences as well, but Kerouac suffered from the anxiety of influence. He wanted to be original, and not just a copycat. This is why he developed his own style which he called spontaneous prose. He would rant on and on about his technique to his friends and sympathizers. He found these kindred spirits whom he could talk to about his style while studying at the University of Columbia. He surrounded himself with intellectual freaks and college dropouts such as Allen Ginsberg, Edie Parker, Lucien Carr, William S. Burroughs, David Kammerer (who would be STABBED by Carr later on), etc . Together they led an unconventional life filled with all kinds of mischief and formed what soon would be known as the Beat generation (although Kerouac didn’t like labels). You might wonder what this “Beat” everyone is always talking about means. So were the interviewers of the fifties, but Kerouac wasn’t too keen on answering that question. Beat is usually considered to be a state of exalted exhaustion, but for Kerouac it was also linked to the catholic beatific vision where the blessed in heaven have a direct knowledge of God. For being such rebellious, young writers, the Beat novelists and poets were extremely spiritual and even religious. They were constantly looking for “it”, which is a sort of paradise-like state of mind, an exalted way of being. This new generation existed out of young men (and women) on a quest for the American dream. They’re not only roaming the streets of America, they’re also roaming their own minds. They trespass almost every boundary imaginary, but they don’t seem to mean harm (although they do cause harm sometimes). They’re only looking for themselves and something to believe in. Like every generation they’re looking for the meaning of life. Their work explores themes like personal freedom, America, the American dream, catholic spiritualism, Buddhism, promiscuity, drug experiments, jazz music, and ALL THINGS EXALTING AND FRANTIC.
Like most of his work, On the Road, the work that made Kerouac famous was semi-autobiographical. Not surprising if you know what kind of life he led: it was wild, it was fun, it was dangerous, it was aggressive, it was perilous, it was crazy. When Kerouac met Neal Cassady, he didn’t immediately took a liking to him. Cassady was even more crazy than his other friends, and as an ex con-man he seemed to be really tough and dangerous. The first plan of Cassady to get into Columbia University was abandoned when he met Kerouac and Ginsberg. Learning that they were writers, he wanted to become one as well and was eager to learn from them. The second time Cassady and Kerouac met, at a party in an apartment, they talked for a while and became friends after all. This is when the big “on the road” adventure starts (also literally: the party where they meet is described in the opening chapter).
Kerouac often said that he was on the road for seven years, but wrote the manuscript of his novel in three weeks. This is only correct if you don’t include the preparations and former versions of the novel, but it’s still quite an accomplishment. His way of writing wasn’t loved by everybody. Truman Capote even said that this wasn’t writing, but typing. On the Road was compared by Kerouac and many others to Joyce’s Ulysses. Where Joyce writes about Ireland and explicitly Dublin in his modernist masterpiece, Kerouac writes about San Fransisco, Denver, New York and many other American places. Both authors write about semi-autobiographical subjects and have shocked the audience with controversial themes (such as SEX). And of course, they both employ a very unusual, personal writing style. Because of this comparison I had expected On the Road to be extremely chaotic and unstructured, but luckily this wasn’t the case. “Stream of consciousness” and “spontaneous prose” are part of the same stylistic family, but On the Road is narrated in linear direction which makes the plot easier to follow. It’s mainly the colloquialisms, nonsense-yells and the repetitions of words that make Kerouac’s style unconventional. Lindsay Weir in the TV show Freaks and Geeks had warned me for this way of writing, and, like we say in Belgium, a warned man counts for two. But don’t worry: his writing style is very readable and actually quite beautiful.
Now some more about the content. What I liked about the protagonists were their marathon conversations. This is very recognizable! Think about when you first met your best friends. I bet you talked for hours and hours, and I bet you still can. They want to share their thoughts so desperately that they schedule moments to talk to each other in their busy lives. When Sal (Kerouac), Dean (Cassady) and other companions are on the road, all they do is drive, talk for hours, sleep, pick up hitch hikers, get into trouble, cheat on their wives or girlfriends and search for ‘”it”. What bothered me most about Dean was the way he treated women. Sal and Dean talk about love as if it’s one of the most important things in life, but they (especially Dean) seem to forget that mutual respect is the key to true love. They are able to fall in love in one minute, but seem to be capable of falling out of love even faster. They all get married to each other as if it’s nothing, and Dean doesn’t seem to mind to switch girlfriends or wives (he even encourages it). If these women were okay with this way of living, I wouldn’t mind, but they DO. There are a lot of descriptions of crying women and left behind children. Sal isn’t as extreme as Dean. He seems to feel remorse about hurting women and disapproves of Dean’s way of using his lovers, but he’s no angel either. His aunt (mother in real life) takes care of him and worries about him, but he just takes of whenever he wants. I guess it’s all part of the Beat way of living, but it stands in the way, for me, to call them real heroes. TREAT YOUR WOMEN RIGHT MOTHERFUCKERS (is what I wanted to say to them every once and a while). Their alcohol and drug abuse sometimes turns them into disrespectful cavemen. Dean is the kind of man (boy really) who has to rely on others in order to feel alive, and this sort of turns him into a sad figure. Even Sal knows this, although he keeps on defending him. His friend crush on Dean brings him a lot of great experiences, but also exhausts him, beats him. Dean will eventually lose this unconditional love and respect of Sal for him because he is unable to evolve. He is to beat to move on, while Sal knows when it’s time to stop and to cherish the memories. This is why I started liking Sal more towards the end of the novel, when he feels as if he has had his kicks, and is ready to write and live a more steady life. I’m all for experiences and self-quests, but not when it’s dragging everyone around you down.
But to end on a more positive note: this novel DID inspire me. The wonderful prose of Kerouac deserves all the praise it has been getting, and the life on the road (and the road as a metaphor)do invite you to take on life. The exhilarating jazz parties, encounters on the way and sublime landscapes (yep, there I go again) definitely sound appealing to me and again remind me to GET THAT DAMNED DRIVER’S LICENCE. This summer I will dive into the wondrous world of traffic rules and driving techniques and soon you will all see me “on the road” (and yes, I will also be eating a lot of apple pie, like Sal).
Start reading already! (Or ask someone with a juicy American accent to read it to you, because it’s made to be read aloud)
Quotes to make you curious:
“They danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow Roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars, and in the middle, you see the blue center-light pop, and everybody goes ahh…”
“Marylou was a pretty blonde with immense ringlets of hair like a sea of golden tresses; she sat there on the edge of the couch with her hands hanging in her lap and her smoky blue country eyes fixed in a wide stare because she was in an evil grey New York pad that she’d heard about back West, and waiting like a longbodied emaciated Modigliani surrealist woman in a serious room. But, outside of being a sweet little girl, she was awfully dumb and capable of doing horrible things”.
“A pain stabbed my heart, as it did every time I saw a girl I loved who was going the opposite direction in this too-big world.”
“And as I sat there listening to that sound of the night which bop has come to represent for all of us, I thought of my friends from one end of the country to the other and how they were really all in the same vast backyard doing something so frantic and rushing-about”.
“We turned at a dozen paces, for love is a duel, and looked at each other for the last time”
“What’s your road, man?–holyboy road, madman road, rainbow road, guppy road, any road. It’s an anywhere road for anybody anyhow.”
“In myriad pricklings of heavenly radiation I had to struggle to see Dean’s figure, and he looked like God.”
“You don’t die enough to cry.”
“So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, and all the people dreaming in the immensity of it… and tonight the stars’ll be out, and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear?”