On the Road and Jack Kerouac were for me, growing up, one of the quintessential travel stories written by the archetype of the traveler. Or so I believed, because I hadn’t read it for the first time until this year. I’ve spent a lot of the last eight or so years traveling, and in doing so I would read through peoples’ libraries, hoping someone would have copies of books I wanted to read. However I never did find On the Road until I got a library card again(1) here at Lancaster. Taking advantage of my library privileges I’ve gotten my hands on three books I’ve been wanting to read for ages but never gotten around to until now: Slaughterhouse Five, The Fault in Our Stars, and On the Road. The other two books lived up to my expectations. Did On the Road? Let’s find out.
On the Road is a semi-autobiographical work about a character named Sal Paradise and loose cast of characters all of whom were influential beat authors, including the St Louis native William S. Burrows as Old Bull Lee(2) The book is split up into five distinct parts which tell a story of Sal Paradise working, loving, running with friends, getting his heart broken, but in the end Kerouac gives Sal an optimistic ending and Dean gets a semi-romanticised ending.
On the Road, like a long-term trip, has some unforgettably beautiful passages that will stick with you long after moving on. But, also like a long-term trip, it gets tough to slog through in parts (and I have faith enough in Kerouac’s style to believe it was structured that way for pacing purposes). Overall, I’d say the book is worth the read, but it’s likely to be a slow read, because also like a long term holiday, no matter how you try, some things can’t be rushed. And those things tell you when it ends and begins.
- Most of the places I’ve lived require “proof of address” to get a library card and because I moved around so much, I’ve had a hard time getting one.
- Allen Ginsberg as Carlo Marx and Neal Cassidy as Dean Moriarty are the other notables. (source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_the_Road)
First thing I have to note is this absolutely AMAZING blog I found, “Littourati – life, literature, and maps”, where the author has google mapped all of Sal Paradise’s travels, plus book quotes from areas and everything. Really amazing stuff, and they have begun mapping for another favourite book of mine: American Gods by Neil Gaiman, link to the project in process here.
Genres: travel, semi-autobiographical, beatnik, pop fiction
- Then Indiana fields again, and St Louis as ever in its great valley clouds of afternoon. The muddy cobblestones and the Montana logs, the broken steamboats, the ancient signs, the grass and the ropes by the river. The endless poem.
- “Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.”
- “…the whole thing was hopeless, besides which Lucille would never understand me because I like too many things and get all confused and hung-up running from one falling star to another till I drop. This is the night, what it does to you. I had nothing to offer anybody except my own confusion.”
- “I told Terry I was leaving. She had been thinking about it all night and was resigned to it. Emotionlessly she kissed me in the vineyard and walked off down the row. We turned at a dozen paces, for love is a duel, and looked at each other for the last time.”
- I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up.
The first two parts lived up to what I was hoping from On the Road, with a colourful cast, lots of hitchhiking, and hijinx. Then the story takes a turn when Sal travels to Denver the second time solo and hooks up with Dean who brings a car into the mix. Once Dean is in the picture and in control things start to get a little boring for me.
It was nice to see the hitchhiking part of the story in reverse with Dean picking up hitchhikers and them just figuring out who this character is, however Dean’s predilection for illicit activities and getting way wild when he’s been leaning becomes nerve grating. Not to mention the fact that he keeps cheating and marrying and divorcing and having children and leaving all these women all over the country which grates on the nerves in the background because he is so much like that one friend you have that you keep trying and wanting to like but they keep doing really not-okay things. For some reason Sal’s Buddha-like patience with Dean’s highly questionable and increasingly manic behavior stresses me out almost as much.
After parts 3 and 4, which compose almost half the novel, the 5th part is mercifully short opening with the first change of perspective in the whole book, Dean’s perspective, before going back to Sal. This isn’t to say parts 3 and 4 are bad; some of the most beautiful writing in the entire book is sprinkled through part 4, specifically page 239.
I don’t really know exactly what I was expecting going into On the Road, kind of like every other long term trip I’ve taken. But, like every other long term trip I’ve taken, whatever it was I went looking for, it found me, but I didn’t recognise it at first. And when it was over, I was satisfied.