On the Road, Jack Kerouac. New York: Penguin, 2016 (originally published 1957).
Summary: Kerouac’s classic account of Sal and Dean’s travels across America, laced with jazz, elicit drugs, sexual encounters, and jazz clubs, and the searching for “IT” that defined the “Beat Generation.”
September 5, 2017 marked the 60th anniversary of the publication of On the Road. Penguin Classics has reissued it as part of its Penguin Orange Collection of twelve influential American classics. This was one of those books I grew up with. I was a child during the Beat Generation and came of age in the Hippie Generation that followed it. But I never read the book. Recently, perhaps drawn by Penguin’s cool re-packaging of this book, I finally picked it up and read it. I came to the end of the book thinking that I really hadn’t missed anything by not having read it sooner. Perhaps I might have had a different take back in my teens, or twenties–but then we’ll never know, will we?
The plot is basically a narrative of several road trips back and forth across America, and into Mexico. The two main characters are Sal Paradise (the narrator) and Dean Moriarty, thinly disguised representations of Kerouac, and his friend Neal Cassady, who took similar, real-life journeys. Other characters are inspired by “Beat Generation” friends such as Allen Ginsberg (“Carlo Marx”). The story consists of journeys across the country, often at high speeds if Dean is driving, punctuated by stops in various cities, most notably Denver, for some reason, filled with heavy drinking, illicit drugs, sex with whomever is willing, children by several women, and brushes with the law. Visits to jazz clubs in New Orleans and elsewhere seems to be the ultimate expression of their quest for “IT” which is never defined but perhaps approached during a jazz set. One of the noteworthy passages is this description of listening to George Shearing:
“The drummer, Denzil Best, sat motionless except for his wrists snapping the brushes. And Shearing began to rock; a smile broke over his ecstatic face; he began to rock in the piano seat, back and forth, slowly at first, then the beat went up, and he began rocking fast, his left foot jumped up with every beat, his neck began to rock crookedly, he brought his face down to the keys, he pushed his hair back, his combed hair dissolved, he began to sweat. The music picked up. The bass player hunched over and socked it in, faster and faster, it seemed faster and faster, that’s all. Shearing began to play his chords; they rolled out of the piano in great rich showers, you’d think the man wouldn’t have time to line them up. They rolled and rolled like the sea. Folks yelled for him to ‘Go!’ Dean was sweating; the sweat poured down his collar. ‘There he is! That’s him! Old God! Old God Shearing! Yes! Yes! Yes!” And Shearing was conscious of the madman behind him, he could hear every one of Dean’s gasps and imprecations, he could sense it though he couldn’t see. ‘That’s right!’ Dean said. ‘Yes!’ Shearing smiled; he rocked. Shearing rose from the piano, dripping with sweat; these were his great 1949 days before he became cool and commercial. When he was gone Dean pointed to the empty piano seat. ‘God’s empty chair, he said.”
This gives you a sense of the writing style one finds throughout the book. It feels breathless and frenetic. Kerouac supposedly was trying to use an improvisational style of writing that was not unlike jazz improvisation. The work was typed on a scroll consisting of tracing paper sheets cut to size and taped together into a 120 foot scroll. The book was typed out single space without paragraph breaks, and later edited to its present form. That, perhaps, helps explain the feel of the book.
The work is clearly an important artifact of cultural history, chronicling the Beat Generation rebellion against standard values and material aspirations, it’s embrace of transgressive sexuality, and the quest for the transcendent through music and mind-altering drugs. It also captures something of the American love affair with the road–a fast car, an open road, a cross-country journey. Coming on the heels of World War II, it describes one response to the horrors of that war, and perhaps all our wars that have followed. In some way, the book seems to me to articulate the alternate American Dream to the one of affluence in suburbia, a playing out of the Dionysian versus Appolonian dichotomy.
I’m struck by the fact that the principle characters are men, who seem like boys living an extended adolescence–living off others, refusing responsibility for their sexuality, for the damage they leave, and depending upon women to fill the gaps they leave while indulging in their relentless pursuit of IT on the road (which mostly seems to be drunkenness and sex). It took us until the 1990’s and Thelma and Louise to see two women pursuing the same kind of journey, with a glorious, or very bad end, depending on how you look at it.
Besides the fact that there is so little of the actual grandeur of the country they crisscrossed, what most troubles me is “the road not taken” by Sal and Dean. So often, their path is portrayed as the courageous protest against conventional, materialistic values. But I watched my parents, and others of their generation, Kerouac’s generation, choose a life shaped by their religious commitments, one shaped by faith in God that faced life’s tragedies and mysteries and one shaped by love of the “until death do us part” kind that translated into the hard and rewarding work of really learning to live with another fractious human being and to raise children to responsible adulthood. They enjoyed the good things of life as gift and not quest, and as meant to be shared with others rather than to be indulged in to excess. Their presence helped neighborhoods, workplaces, and civic organizations flourish.
Perhaps for some, going “on the road” ends up being a kind of pilgrimage that leads to insight and forms character. Far too often, though, it seems to me that those who emulated Sal and Dean simply ended up as alcoholics, or potheads no longer able to put two thoughts together. Often they have left a trail of wrecked lives behind them, and exist on the charity of others. Other than the portrayals of a golden age of jazz, and understanding a “cultural moment,” I found little to inspire me, or provoke thought, and certainly not a life I could commend.