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On the Road by Jack Kerouac

April 27, 2011

I am late to the party, having just read On the Road by Jack Kerouac. I wonder if it is my age (a really old 27) that caused me to be more irritated than enthralled by this book, or that my student loan payments force me to stay responsible. There’s no dropping everything and running away for this girl.

On the Road is a landmark American novel, as it helped define the “Beat generation” and explored this diverse country of ours. It is written in a palatable sort of stream-of-consciousness; it is much easier to follow than, say, Mrs. Dalloway. It has that “THIS IS HAPPENING NOW” vibe, which is remarkable given it’s fifty years old. Check this out: “As the cabby drove us up the infinitely dark Alameda Boulevard along which I had walked many and many a lost night the previous months of the summer, singing and moaning and eating the stars and dropping the juices of my heart drop by drop on the hot tar…” (222). Obviously, Keruoac did an amazing job writing the thing: why does it irritate me?

The back cover (Fifteenth printing 1971) reads “The book is ultimately a celebration of life itself…” I believe that to be true, if you are a selfish jerkwad. This novel chronicles the cross-country adventures of our narrator Sal Paradise, a writer, and his many friends. The primary influence on his life is Dean Moriarty, who falls into jerkwad territory. In the aughts we call guys like this “douchebag,” but that may be too soft a term for ol’ Dean. So, Kristina, what is so irritating about this?
Dean is based on real life Beat groupie Neal Cassaday. Jack writes=Sal writes. Neal clowns around=Dean clowns around.

I am not going to belittle the accomplishments of the Beats. That’s not why I am here. The Beats helped America get less prude and do away with stupid obscenity laws. They were a necessary movement for both literature and society as a whole. They inspired the hippies, man. Can you dig? Yes!

No, instead, I am going to say that I give this book three point five out of five stars because Dean Moriarty is such a jackass. It’s a damn shame he’s based on a real person; it reminds me that far too many people like this exist. Sure, Dean could be a sweet guy and care about his friends…but he is also a low-life who couldn’t support his brood of children by several baby-mamas. I’m sorry you had a tough life, Dean, but please, use a condom. Hedonism=yay! Not taking responsibility for things=boooo. Dean is Chaotic Evil.

Dean is a necessity to this book because he inspires so much of Sal’s action. He’s a deadbeat muse. Sal, on the other hand, seems pretty tame. It’s never his idea to steal cars or destroy things. But he goes along with it, because, hey, it’s fun. So how, exactly, are we celebrating life? By behaving like complete jackasses with utter disregard for others! YAY FUN CELEBRATE GOOD TIMES COME ON. Obviously I am embittered by this.

Aside from the characters’ moral shortcomings (which doesn’t make a book bad; it’s just hard to swallow when this book is sold as a “celebration of life”), this book is pretty great. Keruoac’s prose makes you feel there. It’s not just because they are based on real people, but because he finds those minute details that make a character feel real. Check out this description of the hyperkinetic Dean (114):

Furiously he hustled into the railroad station; we followed sheepishly. He bought cigarettes. He had become absolutely mad in his movements; he seemed to be doing everything at the same time. It was a shaking of the head, up and down, sideways; jerky, vigorous hands; quick walking, sitting, crossing the legs, uncrossing, getting up, rubbing the hands, rubbing his fly, hitching his pants, looking up and saying, “Am,” and sudden slitting of the eyes to see everywhere; and all the time he was grabbing me by the ribs and talking, talking.

I felt there: Colorado, Texas, Mexico, New York, et al. Keruoac does wonders for the reader. But is imagery enough? No, it’s not. Luckily, we get a lil’ bit of philosophizing in, too. At times this is just pretentious conversations dropping Schopenhauer‘s name, but at others, it gets good—sweeter, even.

In driving past indigenous Mexicans, Dean was bewildered by the simple lives they lead and their isolation from modernity (197):

Notice the beads of sweat on her brow,” Dean pointed out with a grimace of pain. “It’s not the kind of seat we have, it’s oily and it’s always there because it’s always hot the year round and she knows nothing of non-sweat, she was born with sweat and dies with sweat.” The sweat on her brow was heavy, sluggish; it didn’t run; it just stood there and gleamed like a fine olive oil. “What that must do to their souls! How different they must be in their private concerns and evaluations and wishes!” Dean drove on with with mouth hanging in awe, ten miles an hour, desirous to see every possible human being on the road.

So I guess I don’t hate Dean completely, given his hunger for new experiences and appreciation for the little things. Everyone should definitely read this book, but keep in mind that it’s not all romantic as we tend to think of the Beat generation. It’s often sad.


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