On the Road by Jack Kerouac (Penguin Modern Classics, 2007, RRP £7.99)
WARNING- This book will make you want to travel. It will make you want to get in the car and drive dizzyingly fast, not stopping until the wheels fall off, night and day, through sleepy towns to bustling cities. It will make you want to have adventures, and when you finish it, and come back to your life again, everything will seem stale, and you might spend a sleepless night or two wondering why you lack the courage to be a little less like everyone else.
For the last seven years I’ve carried around this weird fallacy in my head, put there by a university tutor, that it took Jack Kerouac three weeks to write On The Road. Yes, he sat in front of the typewriter for three weeks and banged it out, but there were years of frustration and false starts and missteps before then. The elegant, stream of consciousness prose that eventually poured out of him during those three weeks were his reward for those years of literary struggle, and On The Road was the novel that Kerouac always knew he had to write. On The Road is strongly autobiographical, and my edition had an excellent introduction that explained who all the characters were meant to be. If, like me, you have but limited knowledge of the Beat movement, this won’t mean much to you, but I found it useful later on when I wiled away a few hours at work looking everyone up on Wikipedia.
Our main protagonist, Sal Paradise, is completely in the thrall of Dean Moriarty. In the novel’s four main parts, Sal bounces from one coast of America to the other, eventually making it as far down as Mexico, failing to settle anywhere or at anything. Meanwhile, Dean grows madder, and steadily accumulates more wives and children. Dean, based on Kerouac’s friend, Neal Cassady, is the novel’s hero, and with his ceaseless energy, free spirited nature, and his refusal to settle down he embodies the ideals of the Beat movement. However, as the book progresses, Dean begins to fall apart. Torn between a wife in San Francisco and a pregnant lover in New York, his friends start to see him as more of a fool than a hero, and his avoidance of his responsibilities begins to look embarrassing.
I read a recent interview with Carolyn Cassady, Neal’s second wife and Camille in the novel, and she said that it took her a long time before she could read On The Road, because she found it too painful to discover how much fun they had all been having, while she was abandoned with the children. Which got me to thinking, maybe that is really, deep down, what the Beat movement was all about, how much wild crazy fun you can possibly have in a lifetime, and how long you can avoid the responsibilities that society has laid out for you. It was a perfectly understandable reaction to the austere post-war years, and a defining ideal for a generation. It is also an essentially selfish and, if you consider that both Kerouac and Cassady died in their forties as a result of their excesses, short-lived lifestyle choice. As On The Road progresses, Sal Paradise grows disillusioned with his lifestyle, and his travels become less fulfilling. His final trip with Dean, a drug fuelled journey through Mexico, ends rather appropriately, in dysentery. While Sal lies delirious, Dean abandons him, leaving Sal to muse ‘when I got better I realized what a rat he was, but then I had to understand the impossible complexity of his life, how he had to leave me there, sick, to get on with his wives and woes.’ Sal returns to New York, where he meets a girl with sad eyes, exactly like he had been searching for.
The novel ends with Sal and his new girl planning on moving to San Francisco, and Dean appearing to help with the move. Everything falls through however, and Dean disappears for a final time, leaving Sal to reminisce about their adventures, seeming strangely bereft. It is easy to imagine how Dean’s (Neal’s) downward spiral will turn out, and perhaps it is only Sal’s (or rather Jack’s) literary aspirations that keep him relatively grounded in comparison. When On The Road was published, it received mixed reviews. In The New York Times it was praised as ‘a major novel’, but Truman Capote scoffed at Kerouac’s methods, grandly declaring ‘that’s not writing, it’s typing.’ Well Truman, much as I love you, I have to say you’re wrong. In short, it is impossible to underestimate how influfencial On The Road has been on modern culture, you only have to think how ubiqutious the American road-trip movie is to us now.