The thing about On The Road is that it seemed like something that I would be into. According to the absolute truth of Wikipedia, it has been responsible for influencing a whole host of folks I admire like Bob Dylan or Hunter S. Thompson. Warren Ellis used to read it once a year. It's about road travel and America and emotional yearning and bonding those are all things that I think are swell. This should have been in my head years ago.
Well, I did. And I decided to write about it because my "books" tag only has one entry, and that's for a comic.
The book is all at once the portrait of the emerging beat generation (although Gregory Corso disputes that three writers makes a generation) and late 1940's America. The hook is the language: it's detailed, dramatic, and so visceral that it sometimes sounds best in a whisper. In modern times, people would have called it purple prose, a flare for the overdramatic, a tendency for hyperbole or overuse of metaphor. But if you're willing to loosen your critical cap a little bit, it can be taken as prose poetry that reaches deep at every opportunity.
Considering that it was originally creative non-fiction, it was no surprise to me that there is no driving plot other than the literal driving from city to city. You keep reading not because you want to find out what happens next, but because this is your trip, too. You are being whisked away in some old Ford and you can't really get off. The vivid language and in-the-moment urgency inspires in us the natural curiosity of travelers. What's Tucson look like? What's New Orleans like? Denver? Setting and location are the main attraction here, which is one of my weak spots, so it was good to see how others have handled it.
Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady, under the pseudonyms of Sal and Dean, hit so many places across the country that it had to have been a daunting task to differentiate all these places and make each one mean something new. Every stop, whether it's Denver or Chicago or the "awful cemetery cities beyond long island city," all have some sort of heavy rumbling within the soul. It is easy to eat it all up and be one and the same and vibe those same vibes. This is the same deeply rooted and universal identification that made everyone think they were Holden Caulfield in the 10th grade. But in a way, these proto-hipsters might just be the result of a life of privilege, which Kerouac even kinda-sorta labels as "white sorrow," of living with parents and not having a war to fight or cause to bolster. Much in the way today's apathetic hipster is a reaction to the cleaner and easier modern world, or at least, the outward appearance of one. You get a sense their entire life is parties and art, which is just how they search for some kind of sense of purpose or excitement. Something to make their hearts explode.
So they go on the road. They get in a car and drive 110 on light freeways and hitchhike when they have to and never stay anywhere more than a week. Today it's endearing to read of a time when human contact was the point; the lives of other people is what gets them high. I mean, yeah, the marijuana and alcohol too. But mostly it's just the emotional turmoil and the world around them that gets them buzzing. Kerouac writes best when he tries to not just convey that wonder, but transfer it directly.
Towards the end they venture into Mexico, and looking at this section with an education in racial politics, it is easy to see they accept it as a novelty. They don't disrespect, but rather go the other predictable route, and put the exotic other on a magical pedestal. The brown south and the Indians are the truth and simple and wild and real and mystical. It's an easy thing to forgive, but it is indicative of the mindset that liberals have been condescending with for decades now. These are people who are so absorbed into their world that something that is devoid of all intellectualized sadness, something that is purely plain and simple, suddenly become the ideal. It's a trope that persists
today. This isn't to say that I hold this book to be racist, or even worse off for it, but it is something that reads differently in a modern context.
Maybe I'm not meant to psychoanalyze Sal and Dean or tie it to my own modern understandings, but I couldn't get that knot out of my head the entire time. It wasn't a detriment to the reading and it was still a damn beautiful stream of consciousness work. But it recolored the characters for me to think of them not as great, wandering and hurt sages, but as the disaffected no-longer-youths suffering conventional existential crisis seeking drama and authenticity. Though, reputable and intellectual all the same. Perhaps they were originators of this archetype. I deal in this wheelhouse a lot, either in writing it, mimicking it, or witnessing it in the stories of others.
But, oh, the writing. It gets to you and tugs at the brain and the heart and you want to believe that his emotional torrents are true and unique. That his hurt is both distinct and just like yours. The difference is that Kerouac was a fantastic, proper writer. He had drive, discipline and vision. You have a blog.
What is that feeling when you're driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? — it's the too-huge world vaulting us, and it's good-by. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.
The nature of the original scroll comes through on every page. It blurs paragraphs into a dream-like state with no definition or grounding in the scene. My idea of stream-of-consciousness is usually associated with William Faulkner's style, but here, you are inclined to believe that you have been led into the mainline dream thoughts of a mad writer. It helps fuel the myth that first drafts have to be golden, that if it isn't, you aren't good enough. But even Kerouac took painstaking notes over years, and rewrote and edited the book before & after the scroll.
I got a sense of an older America, and while I don't naively wish for that "golden age," I do find it fascinating to compare to the world I know. These are thirty something, post-graduates, living with aunts and parents and trying to make art. Hitchhiking is a feasible mode of transportation, and if the fear of being mugged or assaulted is prevalent, it doesn't stop the common person. Stealing is pretty easy, too. Imagine that; living in a time where if you really needed something, simply taking it was a reasonable option. No security cameras, no anti-theft detectors at the door, and the ubiquity of stealing culture lessening the guilt on your mind. Just you and a big coat.
Why think about that when all the golden land's ahead of you and all kinds of unforeseen events wait lurking to surprise you and make you glad you're alive to see?
Another thing that was infectious about the era that is conveyed is that wild sense of discovery. Maybe it stems from their normal detachment, but it makes you giddy for exploration. It's a shot of wanderlust that doesn't go away after 300 pages. It feels like a time before we were all connected and committed to institutions, when it was possible (and even necessary) to just get up and go. To think that a guy could drop his commitments and hitchhike from San Francisco to New York because, god damn it, he was going mad and his heart needed it. To drive circles around the nation regularly - it's a romantic notion that makes it seem like a romantic generation.
We lay on our backs, looking at the ceiling and wondering what God had wrought when He made life so sad.
If it wasn't a generation, it was at the very least in this scene they describe and live in. All this bottled up sadness. Emotional wreckage and need. Mistakes and alcohol and loneliness. Kerouac falls in love repeatedly through out the book, and the words are so slick you believe it every time. Even when it's just a girl in the background. His buddy Dean is worse, impregnating something like 58 girls and marrying and divorcing 60 of them. He is the friend you don't want to have but if you did, you would stick by him, utter madness or no.
It brought me back to John Fante a lot, particularly when they were bouncing around Los Angeles. Fante, too, was wrapped up in the same kind of damages of the heart and trying to make it as a writer. He sought prostitutes in his shameful loneliness, falling in love with a Mexican girl and then splitting with her with enormous melancholy. It's a veritable tradition of drunk romantics.
I also learned that when they say "beat" generation, they meant beat. As in, tired and worn and beat up. For some reason, in my vague culturla frame of reference, I had associated it with beatniks, and with that, congas, so I always thought beat referred to rhythm. It is a good thing to clear up before I betrayed my ignorance in conversation.
I read most of this novel in the comfort of my house, particularly during my spat with unemployment. It did no good for my soul, to see the same four walls, and then read about the great big road out there. "The road is life," says Kerouac, and there I was on a cushioned couch under a yellow lamp. I looked out the window and saw the wall of my sometimes-gated community, just 10 feet away. I have no yard. The second floor view just shows the roof of the low-income apartment complex next to us.
For a moment I conceptualized a modern equivalent to this book called "Off The Road." It would star Jean Utopia, and it would take place entirely in his room, in his parent's house. And all his adventures, exploration, drama and character interaction would take place on the internet. Part of it would be chat transcripts and forum posts, and it would be stocked exclusively in the failed satire section of your book store.
The point was that this book, as it does with most readers, left me feeling like there's an America somewhere out there and I'm missing it. I begrudgingly finished the novel and made mental notes to do something more. We all grapple with ennui frequently in our young lives, and Sal and Dean and Fante show us one way out. My life is still the same, probably the effect of anticipation or knowing to restrain fanaticism because it's unattractive. I also understand that equating the value of your life with travel is foolish
-- travel, even within our own country, is a tremendous privelege for those, like Kerouac, had little to no actual responsibilities to others or in their lives. But the book is an excellent piece of life, for those of us that need it dreamed in our direction.