I’m supposed to think this is like God’s gift to prose, right? Well honestly, I’m left a little wanting. Ironically, two major themes of On the Road*—restlessness and dissatisfaction with what is in front of you—were two emotions I experienced mid-read. Now that I’ve really set this novel up for death-by-review, I’ll outline its plot, its shortcomings, and even some potential redeeming factors.
Similar to roman à clef novels I’ve reviewed in the past (The Things They Carried, The Rum Diary, Ham On Rye, and The Bell Jar), the characters in this story correspond to Kerouac’s real-life friends and the narrative reveals their actual adventures on the road from 1947 to 1950. The book follows Sal Paradise (Kerouac) as he embarks on several journeys to the West and eventually Mexico, making notable pit stops in San Francisco, Denver, and Chicago. He is regularly accompanied by Dean Moriarty—the fictional version of Neal Cassady. Other memorable authors such as Ken Kesey and Hunter S. Thompson also immortalize Cassady’s craziness in their own works. Clearly, I need to find better, cooler, famous author friends.
The original manuscript was written on a thirty-foot long scroll—probably the dopest thing about this book. It currently resides in the home of the owner of the Indianapolis Colts, right next to a briefcase full of pills and a voodoo doll of Tom Brady holding an under-inflated football. It epitomizes the “Beat Generation”, a group of post-World War II creative types that focused on alternative, counter-culture lifestyles, often invoking elements considered conventionally obscene. “Beat” connotes the state of being weary/worn down as well as a musical beat (specifically jazz in this novel). So, why are these guys so tired? Should they perhaps take a nap? In reality, it runs slightly deeper than something a 40 minute snooze can fix (you’re ridiculous if you’re capable of limiting yourself to 20-minutes). These men (and women) were jaded from war and discontented with the predictability of their dreary day-to-day duties. By confronting such an endemic problem that plagued an entire generation, the novel seems to be historic and is hailed as such; however, there are many novels that employ these themes/address these issues, and I feel that this particular one receives undue respect. Why? I’ll tell you!
- It’s about a 25-year-old man who lives off the land and proclaims the mantra, “there was nowhere to go but everywhere” (Kerouac, 26). Certainly a fun topic in theory, but a lot of it is really kind of boring. Oh, he hitchhikes here and doesn’t have any money? Oh, he hitchhikes there and still doesn’t have any money? Look, a pretty squirrel! In my opinion, it was twice as long as it needed to be. Homeboy travels out west, does a bunch of drugs, has a lot of sex, and drinks a ton of booze. He goes back to New York for a hot second until he returns to the west and does it all again. I really thought I had misplaced my (bombass, homemade) bookmark and was accidentally re-reading the same passage. As a whole, it gives you the initial rush of impulsive behavior but once that rush dies out, it’s left seeming long-winded.
- And that is partially because it reads like ramblings. It’s written as a continuous, improvisational letter. This style is experimental, and I can respect that; however, the instability of the characters and the frenetic nature of their conversations often render the text incoherent. In reference to a short-lived love interest, Sal Paradise admits, “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” (Kerouac, 126). Well, I understand you about as much as Lucille does. Similarly, Dean frequently gets really geeked up about a far-fetched plan or an ideal and then engages in a lengthy passionate tirade that sounds like nonsense. Sure, he’s an engaging character, but his high-intensity can be overwhelming at times.
- So we’ve got a lot of writing, mostly jumbled…but does the novel effectively communicate something of value (or really anything, even if not of value) at all? Short answer: nope. It lacks substance. The novel exalts a lifestyle of impunity and indulgence as a means to fully experience life. Sal Paradise exudes a spirit of awe and appreciation of what America and the world has to offer, which is a beautiful and admirable way of approaching existence. This is precisely what I loved about Into the Wild, both the book and the film. Alexander Supertramp’s explorations were imbued with soul-searching philosophies and he reached a meaningful conclusion at the end of his voyage, even if it was sorrowful. On the Road made similar attempts but in a less articulate, much more licentious manner. They are “mad drunken Americans in the mighty land” who half-heartedly chase after “IT” (Kerouac, 55). And I’m not talking about this guy...They rightfully recognize that there is more to this world than the traditional schedule of a standard-mold workingman; but they more so just screw around all the time and then pretend it’s part of a wider, cosmic significance. Don’t get me wrong, I like to get my young-wild-and-free on, but I’m also not delusional enough to think that it’s the answer to all of earth’s problems. At least when Paul Kemp (Hunter S. Thompson) drinks himself to oblivion in The Rum Diary, he recognizes the inherent fruitlessness of his debauchery. It was as if Kerouac wanted to try and talk about IT (a truth larger than the self, a less ephemeral consciousness) but instead just partied with no self-awareness. Call hedonism what it is.
- Lastly, the novel unfortunately conflates moral accountability with every day duties. Kerouac thinks that Dean is the absolute shit. He gives the character an undeserved saintly dimension and worships his nonchalance. The problem is that Kerouac misconstrues the benefits of a responsibility-free life, to the detriment of several people. That’s right, I’m calling out an author who has his name on countless “100-books-to-read-before-you-croak” lists. Living responsibility-free (no job, no permanent home, no one to answer to) does not negate all of your moral responsibilities. Quitting my job is one thing, punching my boss just because I feel like it is another. There are other people in Sal and Dean’s life whose lives matter too, and they shouldn’t be sloughed aside just because the men want to live brazenly. That’s some adolescent bullshit. When describing Dean, the “Holy Goof”, Kerouac says, “bitterness, recriminations, advice, morality, sadness—everything was behind him, and ahead of him was the ragged and ecstatic joy of pure being” (Kerouac, 194). He’s explicitly saying that Dean foregoes a sense of morality in order to feel awesome and do whatever the hell he wants. Now, maybe this is some sort of commentary on the deconstruction of human-imposed morals, but that seems a little too Kantian for Kerouac’s capabilities (let’s gooooo). To reiterate, I’m not saying that their road-filled escapades are not freeing and rewarding. But try and avoid this: “with one illegitimate child in the West somewhere, Dean then had four little ones and not a cent, and was all troubles and ecstasy and speed as ever” (Kerouac, 248). It’s all fun and games until you knock up a bunch of woman all over the country and leave them to fend for themselves once you get bored. Literally getting turnt up about this.
Now that we have established that the novel is overly hyped and unduly praised, I have a confession to make. Honestly, I enjoyed the book significantly more retrospectively than when I was actively reading it. I finished this novel this past November and recently revisited it for a book discussion that my friend Aline and I have from time to time. When I reopened it, it took on a romanticized quality. Kerouac’s travels took place so long ago, when he could get away with saying, “I had three hundred and sixty-five miles yet to hitchhike to New York, and a dime in my pocket” without having to seriously worry about getting his head cut off by a serial killer (Kerouac, 104). These elusive concepts (inexpensive, easily accessible divorce just because you woke up and felt like it—no binding alimony or child support, paying for a three cent meal, etc.) are alluring to us. The impossibility of it all seems almost utopic. This kind of gallivanting around could never happen now to that extreme and frankly, that makes me a little jealous. Furthermore, taken piece-meal, there are plenty of solid lines. Again, it’s mostly ramblings, but I was able to underline some real gems. One of my personal favorites, and the inspiration behind many successful diets, I hope: “I ate another apple pie and ice cream; that’s practically all I ate all the way across the country, I knew it was nutritious and it was delicious, of course” (Kerouac, 14). I would be okay with exclusively eating rotisserie chicken and nerds.
In truth, unlike many reviewers who accept the novel’s shallowness as an answer to the implicit promise of a great discovery on the open road, I expected more. It did not change my life; I’m glad that I read it insofar as now I can make fun of it from an informed perspective. Its scattered stylistically impressive sentences are enjoyable, but not enough to compensate for the poorly attempted profundity. I think that I would probably love Kerouac’s poetry—his yearning for truth, love, and life would likely read more digestibly in a condensed form. But this is a review of his novel, and I give it a resounding 2 out of 5 camel humps. If you want a more effective and satisfying means of escaping mundanity and feeling a touch of freedom, I recommend jamming out to “Coffee” by Sylvan Esso -- click to have a really good time. And just FYI, they are playing at Bonnaroo this year, so I’ll use this as a shameless plug to encourage people to join me at Roo so that we meet our group camping quota (I gotchu, Ryan Howick).
*Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. New York: the Penguin Group, 1957. Print.