Monday, November 24, 2008

I Think I Get It...

#91 On the Road by Jack Kerouac

Like Alicia Silverstone, I am clueless...regarding Kerouac.

The Beat generation in America paved the way for the Hippies.

That much am I aware.

As depicted in Kerouac's so-called "novel that defined a generation" the Beats were without identity and wandered the country in search of something -- whether it be love, euphoria, or simply joy.

That much I am also aware.

Aside from that I don't know what exactly I got out of On the Road. I'm just not sure if I get it...but I kinda do.

The novel describes narrator Sal Paradise and his gone friend Dean Moriarity's travels across the great American landscape. Divided into five sections, each segment tells a different adventure. Sometimes they go East to West; others West to East. Whether hitchhiking, riding the bus, driving their own cars, stolen cars or being hired to move cars, they always somehow get from Point A to Point B. Eventually the pair finds itself in Mexico for what I guess you would call the novel's climax.

But that's about me anyways.

On the Road is based off of the real life exploits of Kerouac (Sal Paradise) and Neal Cassady (Dean). Thrown in there are also numerous secondary characters, the most notable being Carlo Marx -- the alias of yet another Beat icon, Allen Ginsberg. Marx and Dean spend loads of time together in the early parts of the novel and are described by Kerouac as outcasts:

"They were like the man with the dungeon stone and the gloom, rising from the underground, the sordid hipsters of America, a new beat generation that I was slowly joining."

I would give context for that quote, but there is none. Throughout the whole book there is no context for any description. Kerouac writes long, rambling paragraphs that are heavy on adjectives but light on purpose. He rants and rants and rants about nothing.

Kerouac's pointless, stream-of-conscious diatribes to me are empty. Time and again he writes of massive nights where Dean and Sal go nuts in random American city. It's all the same every time. Denver, New York, San Francisco, New Orleans -- each has its own unique identities, but each is still essentially the same. They don't learn anything knew; the only growth is the further experience of repetitive partying. I dug the admiration for black bop and jazz music, but everything else felt hollow.

But maybe that's the point. Maybe the American experience is one of letdown and disappointment. Dean can never be content in one city, with one woman, living one life. He's restless. Thrilled only by the chase, the road, Dean really isn't a complete person. In a lot of ways Dean is just a symbol for the failure of the American dream. With a drunk for a father and no formal education, Dean floats along doing as he pleases until he is forced to deal with reality. For him, the reality is in the form of the countless bastard children and divorced wives he leaves scattered around the country.

Are Kerouac's experiences a lesson of what not to do? In a lot of ways I feel his recollections are mere documentations of wild nights and nothing more.
I don't think Dean is painted as a sympathetic character, though, despite Kerouac's efforts to make him one. I feel only anger towards Dean, not pity. I think it's because he's such a fuck up; he destroys everything around him and constantly ruins others' lives. If he didn't affect others it would be one thing, but that's not the case. Dean is lost and is bringing everyone down with him in his catastrophe of a life.

What pisses me off the most about this book is the lack of a climax. Like I said before, eventually Dean and Sal stumble down to Mexico, and they love it. The backwards-ness of the impoverished country inspires accomplish exactly the same thing they do in America. Namely, they get drunk, smoke lots of "tea" and pay for sex. This episode concludes with Sal contracting dysentery, Dean abandoning him and eventually Sal returning to America.

The novel's conclusion is essentially Dean won't change and continues to wander and screw people over in the process; Sal settles down with a lady; and the pair -- despite Sal's yearning -- don't rekindle their road wanderings.
By the way, all of that is summed up in about six pages of text. I'm not saying Kerouac had to resolve everything, but I wish he accomplished something.

Yes, Kerouac's wanderings spoke to countless young Americans who felt out of place. The hopeless feeling certainly exists today, and I'm sure On the Road remains an anthem to many. But for those with at least small ambitions, this novel yields nothing.


Like I said before, a mystery guest will discuss Frankenstein. The next novel on my radar is (#90) Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. I read an abridged version in my junior year of high school.

Also, a film review is in the works.


Rick Dale, author of The Beat Handbook said...

I appreciate ALL blog posts about Kerouac, even critical ones like yours.

Maybe you'd appreciate my Kerouac-inspired blog at

Joe said...

I agree with the lack o' story arc. Dudes keep gettin' effed up until one day one of 'em burns out. What's weird is how most Kerouac fans I've met read this book and concluded to live as much as possible as quickly as possible and burn up. I read it and felt like the whole thing was an anti-drug PSA.

Paul Tsikitas said...

Yeah, hated this novel. I'm all about character development tales and things that don't necessarily have the best plot, but On the Road is a joke of a novel.

Anyone who lives by it, I just don't understand them.

Nathan said...

Good God, how I struggled with this book. The simple effort of reading one sentence after another was a chore. The story, like it's characters, went no where and revealed nothing.

But the more I think about it, the more I think that's the point. This isn't a story as much as is it a manifestation of a feeling. This is the embodiment of the American need to see what else is out there, only to find out that there's nothing. It's the physical manifestation of the appeal and eventual letdown of American exploration.

I will say this: after reading the book, I did want to go on a road trip.