On the Road
Jack Kerouac’s On the Road is not a novel at all. It’s a force of nature; an unstoppable, overwhelming torrent of words. It is a rambling conversation between Jack Kerouac and himself.
Written as a stream-of-consciousness autobiography in the guise of fiction, On the Road sees Kerouac cast himself in the role of writer, Sal Paradise.
Sal has just recovered from a long illness and split from his former wife when he meets Dean Moriarty. Dean is attractive, intellectual, free-spirited – and Sal is drawn to him instantly. It’s the beginning of Sal’s new life; his life “on the road”.
Together, Sal and Dean travel across America, experiencing life in its purest form. Accompanied by an ever-changing cast of assorted characters, they search the country for something that always remains just out of reach, like Dean’s father, whose very absence hangs like a ghost about the very edges of this novel.
Over the years of their friendship, Dean’s grip on his sanity slowly deteriorates, and yet Sal’s worship of Dean only grows more fervent.
It’s impossible to write about On the Road without addressing the aura that’s built up around it. Just try and find a description of On the Road that doesn’t claim that the novel defined a generation. Yes, it’s quite an apt description – but, at the same time, the legend that surrounds this novel is, essentially, not what On the Road is about at all.
At first glance, On the Road is a rejection of the trappings of American life in the late forties and early fifties, an indignant raised middle finger to wholesome, middle class society and all its trappings. It’s so tempting to read On the Road as a hymn to freedom, to the open road and the nomadic life of the eternal wanderer – but On the Road is more than that. It’s as much a novel about a doomed friendship as it is about travel.
Sal Paradise is the Sancho Panza to Dean’s mad, staggering Don Quixote. While Dean, for the most part, is having the time of his life, Sal is the hapless one, the devoted follower.
On the Road stops short of glorifying Dean Moriarty. As the novel progresses, Dean’s madness begins to wear thin. The life Dean is living isn’t one that can be lived forever. Eventually, we all have to grow up. Even if it means accepting a little defeat; compromising between two very different kinds of sadness.
Although I admire the themes, and the dynamic between the two main characters of On the Road, I found this novel incredibly frustrating to read. Kerouac’s stream of consciousness style dwells too much on the mundane. We’re forced to endure pages and pages of drunken conversations, pointless arguments between Dean and his friends; bizarre, half-stoned adventures that do nothing to advance the plot. Sal, devoted narrator that he is, includes every little detail of his travels with Dean with the patience of a saint. Unfortunately, as a reader, I don’t have Sal’s patience.
Although Kerouac splits his novel into five parts, it feels like there’s barely the time to take a breath as you read On the Road. Which is a shame, because hidden amongst all the sheer pointlessness and waste of this novel, there are a few episodes which are quite beautiful. In my favourite, Sal falls in love with a Mexican woman, and nearly decides to settle down with her and her child. There’s a chapter where Sal takes a job as a security guard, and experiences the sheer drudgery of a regular job (“This is the story of America”, muses Sal, “Everybody’s doing what they think they’re supposed to do”). And there are several little incidents and descriptions scattered here and there that I found quite stunning:
“There were mysteries around here. The car was going over a dirt road elevated off the swamps that dropped on both sides and drooped with vines. We passed an apparition; it was a Negro man in a white shirt walking along with his arms up-spread to the inky firmament. He must have been praying or calling down a curse. We zoomed right by; I looked out the back window to see his white eyes. ‘Whoo!’ said Dean. ‘Look out. We better not stop in this here country.’ At one point we got stuck at a crossroads and stopped the car anyway. Dean turned off the headlamps. We were surrounded by a great forest of viny trees in which we could almost hear the slither of a million copperheads. (…) There was a smell of oil and dead water in the air. This was a manuscript of the night we couldn’t read.” (p. 149 and 150)
Yes, On the Road can be quite a beautiful novel. But the problem is that Kerouac buries the novel’s beauty between great, useless swathes of text. He uses so many words, and has such agonisingly little to say.
The act of reading On the Road feels rather like being accosted on the street by a wide-eyed stranger, determined to tell you the entire story of their life, whether you like it or not. There’s no space for the reader in On the Road, no room to breathe; no joy. Although the novel is, by definition, a one-sided medium, most authors seem to write with a reader in mind. Not Kerouac. On the Road is not a dialogue with the reader, but a relentless monologue.
Perhaps I’m just old and grumpy. But frankly, when it comes to literature, I’ve come to expect so much more than this.