More years ago than I wish to confess, when a friend was leaving the country to work abroad, I gave her my copy of On the Road. I had just finished the book and enjoyed it enough that I wanted to share it with another avid reader. She asked, “Why this book?”
I answered, “It’s a fun read.”
Having just read the book for the second time, I find myself thinking about that conversation and regretting those words. I do not want to recant them entirely, because there are several fun moments in this book, but I believe if I were asked the same question today–”Why this book?”–I would have chosen another adjective like interesting or edgy. What changed? Did American sensibilities changed enough during the last twenty-some years that the novel that appeared fun in 1987 now appears as edgy or even offensive in 2013? Did I mature? Have I refined my critical standards?
While I was reading it this second time, I realized: This is a novel about lousy people! Worst than a novel, it is a fictionalized memoir about Jack Kerouac’s friendship with Neal Cassady. We must assume that most of the despicable events in the novel are based on real events. Those events involved picking up and leaving women at whim, fathering children without concern for their welfare, drinking to excess, doing drugs, stealing cars, and a multitude of other irresponsible and criminal behaviors. During a visit to a Mexican brothel, they hire prostitutes so young the protagonists become pedophiles.
Kerouac and Cassady, and their fictionalized representatives, Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, broke away from conventional life. This novel relates what Sal, the narrator, calls his time on the road. He joins with Dean on several madcap adventures; they crisscross the country several times, in battered cars and luxurious limousines. They hitchhike; they jump trains. They travel any way they can. It are these scenes of travel that make this a fun book to read, until one realizes that in the wake lies fatherless children, neglected wives, and betrayed friends.
Some novels are rooted in their plots, but not this novel. There is no plot, only one escapade after another. Some novels are based on characters, but not this novel. There are several interesting character descriptions in this book, most notable that of Old Bull Lee (William S. Burroughs in real life), but most characterizations come across as sketchy and incidental. On the Road is driven neither by plot nor character; it is driven by a theme, the theme of restlessness. No one is allowed to feel settled in this novel; no one seems to stay the same place for a few months, a few weeks, even a few days. When winter begins to thaw into spring, the road beacons.
Long descriptions of travels and long passages of chaotic parties monopolize the novel. At first, these travel and party passages are fascinating and fun, but by the middle of the novel, they became redundant. Yeah, yeah! I wanted to cry. These people love to drive, they love to party, and they love their Jazz music. Despite the repetition, the passages are critical to the novel and to its importance in American literature. This novel is a snapshot of a generation of writers we call the Beat Generation. It was how they lived and what they valued. They did not live conventional lives, and they did not value the pursuit of money or power or fame. They lived for the moment and they valued the moment. As Dean said several times in the novel, they knew “time.”
Should you read this novel? Without a doubt, it is the most famous of Jack Kerouac’s novels, but I do not know that it is the best one. I enjoyed The Dharma Bums better. (It is the only other book of his I had read.) I believe some novels are so important to a movement that if you want to understand the movement, you should read those novels. To study American Literature is to study all its phases. Though the Beat phase was brief, it created a bridge between the Lost Generation (Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and company) and the generations of the Sixties (Kesey, Mailer, and their cohorts). I do not believe On the Road is the best work of the Beat Generation, but it is the one that had survived the test of time to be considered the quintessential novel of the Beats.
Kerouac, Jack (1976-12-28). On the Road. Penguin Books. Kindle Edition.