Jack Kerouac’s “On The Road” is widely considered one of the seminal pieces of work on the Beat Generation, and I finally got around to reading the book. It’s a fictionalized account of his cris-cross country travels with a friend of his, Dean, who was Neal Cassady, in reality. Several of the characters in the book are based on real people, but Neal Cassady seems to be the main character.
First off, there’s parts of the book which are wildly vivid in the descriptions of people and landscapes, and moods, but there are also vast passages spent on describing personal poverty, theft, grifting, and the idea there is a counter to that day’s culture. Yet at the same time, as much as Kerouac would like to present a world outside the white picket fences and nine to five jobs that normal people have, he and his could not exist without living off these people to a great extent.
Yet there is something here, a warning we did not heed, and Kerouac’s voice ricochets from one coast to another, describing a nation that is changing its identity and losing its soul. This was all occurring after World War II, in 1947 or so, with the people of the country more prosperous, yet somewhat adrift. The war that defined them is now behind them. What to do next?
Sal, the character that is the narrator and Kerouac’s voice, takes off with Neal Cassady and bounces around the country, philosophizing and drinking hard. There’s sex and drugs and jazz, and I wonder what would have been written in a day where Kerouac’s sexuality would have been more widely accepted.
At the end of the day here, I have to reread this book. I have to tap back into the spirit of the writer, because this is a very well written book, and remember this was a piece created before I was born. The language is different, but not alien. The cultural references are obscure, but not unknown to me, dig? The life of wild drinking and untethered sex, long before HIV or any of the other scary sexually transmitted diseases is a long lost dream. The Golden Age of Jazz began right in front of their eyes, and you have to wonder if anything like that will ever happen again, in any form.
In another twist, despite their lives of bouncing around, staggering about from one side of an continent to the other, Kerouac manages to write. He gets published. And he takes enough notes to produce a cohesive work that leaves me mystified. I yearn for a life spent wild and free, but at the end of the book, Sal and Dean part ways, and Sal leaves that life behind.
“On The Road” isn’t a book written for the mainstream or even those near the edge. It’s a book written for those of us who have slept in bus stations and under overpasses, for those of us who have set foot on the road with no means of getting to one place to another, but bent of traveling anyway, and we always made our destinations.