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Review: ON THE ROAD by Jack Kerouac

“I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up. I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won't bother to talk about, except that it had something to do with the miserably weary split-up and my feeling that everything was dead. With the coming of Dean Moriarty began the part of my life you could call my life on the road.”


Thus begins Jack Kerouac’s most famous travelogue—much more a rambling autobiographic than a novel, much more a longing for the highs between the lows than a story, much more a state of mind than a manifesto of a generation at odds with the stifling status quo. The beauty was that at the time one couldn’t pigeonhole his work, although, like nearly everything else alive in our culture, it didn’t keep nearly everyone from trying. The point was that his friend Dean’s yen for life was infectious, period.



Somewhere between “he who has the most toys when he dies, wins,” and “freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” sprawls the vast morass of the American dream. In 1951, a year after the modest success of his first book, THE TOWN AND THE CITY, Jack Kerouac completed the first draft of his recollections of his post WW2 automobile and bus travels across the US inadvertently unleashing a liberating shockwave that contributed to the upending of the painfully static culture of a country lost in its own smugness at being the last man standing undevastated at war’s end. The draft was an unwieldy thing, as wild, obscene and scattered as the characters it celebrates. It wasn’t until 1957 that ON THE ROAD saw publication, in a much abridged and toned down version (from X rated to PG-13, in today’s pigeonhole parlance,) shortened for coherence at the insistence of the editor. Kerouac’s looping left hook became a devastating straight punch.



Sal Paradise, Kerouac’s alter ego, proclaims his love for “the mad ones, those mad for life, burning like a roman candle…” at the onset and with this crisp and upbeat prose crams nearly everyone with whom he traveled or met into the pages of his book. His favorite adjective was beat, meaning a host of things, from people worn down by life, to objects frayed or rusted from use and age, to the rhythms of jazz, bebop and life itself. That word became the label for a generation of writers, artists, wannabes and dropouts who evolved a generation later into hippies (who adopted Leary’s mantra turn on, tune in, and drop out) and a generation after that into the slackers who just gave up from the onset and stayed stoned. Along the way the madness in which Kerouac reveled grew seedier and seedier, but that is getting slightly afield from his book.



Central to his story is Dean Moriarty, his pseudonym for Neal Cassady, a wild child in his twenties who spent half his life in reform school, mostly for stealing cars, who wants to be a writer. Dean, a fast talking con artist, rode the rails with his alcoholic father as a young boy and has maintained his wanderlust. Sal introduces Dean to many of his crazy friends, and there follows an almost endless series of parties, travels, escapades, in New York City, Denver, Los Angeles, New Orleans, San Francisco, Mexico…and of course, on the road. Dean comes in and out of the adventure, sometimes disappearing for a year at a time. Chapters are dedicated to various individuals who accommodate Sal on this journey of self discovery, from school friends, fellow writers, fellow dreamers. Here and there an actual story develops then unravels, such as Sal’s months-long romance with Terry, a young Mexican woman escaping her brutal husband and trying to rise above her no-chance future inherent in her short changed portion of the American Dream.



The book is a celebration of daring to live in the face of the inevitable annihilation which is the human condition. Sadly, that celebration—which seemingly begins focused on camaraderie, exploration and living life to the fullest—more often than not degenerates into getting drunk, getting stoned, surrendering all one’s inhibitions, speed rapping all night and getting laid, mostly in abject poverty while Sal relates Dean’s misadventures juggling his many wives and girl friends. Rarely does one glimpse anyone finding any manner of real insight, inspiration to create beyond the moment, rise above one’s own limits or embrace the responsibility of adulthood, although plenty of drug induced flashes sizzle and fizzle like fireworks along the way punctuated by sad times of boredom working low paying dead end jobs. And the actual creativity of those characters who channeled this energy such as William Burroughs and Joan Vollmer (Bull and Jane Lee in the book) is barely glimpsed. It is the story of people without foresight refusing to turn grey and march to the dull beat of the soul sapping work-a-day world choosing instead to self destruct on their own terms.



Jack Kerouac chronicled his own life and those of his friends in a series of unconnected books, mistakenly called novels because the names and places were altered or the events truncated. Allen Ginsberg (Carlo Marx in ON THE ROAD) and others turned these chronicles into the myth of the beat generation, something Kerouac never embraced, even openly resented. His stories took on a life of their own inspiring another generation to push the envelope farther.  Kerouac drank himself to death at 47; Cassady died from substance abuse even younger at 42. But the beauty of Kerouac’s prose and the spirit which drove him still reverberates on every printed page.



In his own words, ON THE ROAD, ends with Sal sadder, but no wiser, still digging the wonder of life, the poetry inherent within the landscape.  “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, all the people dreaming the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let children cry, and tonight the stars’ll be out, and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear? the evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shoe in, and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.”



ON THE ROAD was supposedly written during a three week long drug fueled frenzy on a single 120 foot long roll of typing paper so as not to break the creative flow every time the author had to change sheets of paper—a scroll, which was recently sold for an obscene amount of money to the owner of a football team, and which is occasionally put on public display. So great was the influence of the book, it launched a successful genre of “road” books, a sanitized TV show in the 1960’s called Route 66 (Kerouac sued the producers for copyright infringement but later dropped the lawsuit.)  A film version of Kerouac’s book followed in 2012 and was nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film festival. Carolyn Cassady, Neal’s second wife (Camille in ON THE ROAD,) wrote OFF THE ROAD: TWENTY YEARS WITH CASSADY, KEROUAC AND GINSBERG which was published in 1990, giving these events a somewhat different spin.




© 2013  Paul L. Bates