On the Road

by: Jack Kerouac
Published by: Penguin Books, 1957

Jack Kerouac was the kind of man women can't help falling for. Darkly handsome with a sensual mouth and brooding eyes, his writing is more poetry than prose, and his observations have the ring of depth.

And he's shallow, selfish, childish, unreliable, and thrill-seeking. What's not to love, right ladies?

As I re-read his classic saga, ON THE ROAD, (this being the novel's 50th anniversary) I kept thinking of the line from John Keats' poem Ode on a Grecian Urn: "Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know." And I thought how very like the poem is both the writer and his novel.

Ode on a Grecian Urn strums the well-played hymn to youth and beauty: don't we wish we were all like the figures depicted on the Grecian Urn, always young, always beautiful, frozen in the moment of innocent passion and exquisite delight. Keats ends the poem with the lines quoted above, which sound deep and meaningful - but if you really think about them, would indicate that poor little Miss South Carolina's humiliating display of ignorance in the 2007 Miss Teen America pageant somehow, because she is beautiful, also captured truth.

It is possible to be beautiful, and be abysmally ignorant. It is possible to have a beautiful voice, and nothing much to say.

Jack Kerouac had, without doubt, a beautiful voice and an elan vital that permeated his writing. I started underlining passages early in the book, and though opportunities became more sparse as the novel proceeded, they were scattered throughout like winking little gems amid a wealth of dross.

"As we rode in the bus in the weird phosphorescent void of the Lincoln Tunnel..." If you have ever been in the tunnel, he has evoked the sensation perfectly.

Or, "The floors of the bus stations are the same all over the country, always covered with butts and spit and they give a feeling of sadness that only bus stations have." Again, he's spot on.

Kerouac's powers of observation are acute, and his playback of what he has seen and heard evocative. The problem, I think, is the same one I find with that equally talented, and equally "so what?" writer, F. Scott Fitzgerald. His stories seem to me, at least, much about nothing.

The story-behind-the-story of Kerouac's 3-week feat of writing that produced the original manuscript of ON THE ROAD is now well-known lore. The paeans to his originality, and how he coined the term "the beat generation" are legend. The wild stories of the real Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady), his crazed antics, woman and supposedly, man-izing are well known and probably exaggerated. So I won't go into any of that once again.

Suffice it to say that ON THE ROAD is the thinly-veiled biographical narration of the restless movements of a group of young friends in the late 40s as they criss-cross the nation, fueled by drink, drugs, and sex, moving to a soundtrack of "bop," frantically hunting for "kicks," meaning, real people, and always a new place to "go."

The group consists of Sal Paradise (Kerouac), Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady), the laughably-named Carlo Marx (Allen Ginsberg) and Old Bull lee (William S. Burroughs), as well as assorted other odd characters and cypher-like women (who are there mainly to cause trouble and provide sex).

Dean Moriarty (some of Kerouac's choices for literary aliases are amusing and strained; the choice of Dean Moriarty is intriguing: Teacher of Death? Some veiled reference to Sherlock Holmes?) is the centerpiece of the book, the engine that drives all the other characters with his craziness, his energy, his disconnected be-bop observations. Dean, of whom we are told "(his) intelligence was every bit as formal and shining and complete (as more educated characters) without the tedious intellectualness," can best be summed up by a passage intended to describe Sal's experience in Denver: "I pictured myself in a Denver bar that night, with all the gang, and in their eyes I would be strange and ragged and like the Prophet who has walked across the land to bring the dark Word, and the only Word I had was 'Wow!'"

Given to strange verbal tics (hup! hup!, yaasss, wowie, dig it, etc.), Dean is that ragged and strange Prophet, and he holds the action of the story together even when he isn't there. When there, he guides his little band of brothers into adventures in a vapid spiritual wilderness, when he is not there, they seem to spend inordinate amounts of time thinking about him, or seeking him out, or remembering things he has said or done.

In truth, Dean is a thug. "From the age of eleven to seventeen he was usually in reform school. His specialty was stealing cars, gunning for girls coming out of high school in the afternoon, driving them out to the mountains, making them, and coming back to sleep in any available hotel bathtub in town."

It's not just that he is "depraved on accounta he's deprived," he relishes his depravity - he nourishes it.

Dean seems to have no scruples about using people, though in a perverted way he seems to give good measure for what he gets. With the besotted homosexual Carlo Marx, Dean holds long, eye to eye, knee to knee conversations. "'Dean and I are embarked on a tremendous season together. We're trying to communicate with absolute honesty and absolute completeness everything on our minds. We've had to take benzedrine. We sit on the bed, crosslegged, facing each other. I have finally taught Dean that he can do anything he wants, become mayor of Denver, marry a millionairess, or become the greatest poet since Rimbaud."'

Meanwhile Dean is sleazily romancing at least two women in separate hotel rooms, one of them innocent of the other. He schedules his amorous encounters with them with the precision of the railroad trains he hops when he finally grows tired of the conversations, the women, the scene in general, and finds it necessary to rush, roar, ball, or bowl - or any of the many alternatives Kerouac must invent for the constant state of departure his characters find themselves in and the hurry they are always in to accomplish it - away to the next adventure.

None of the crew spends a great deal of time doing anything useful, though without any reference to the work involved, Sal (aka Kerouac) does manage in the course of the few years covered by the book, to write a book and publish it. Dean works odd jobs, but mostly bums money, food, drugs, and drink from his friends and his women, leaving a variety of children scattered across the country in his wake.

Both Dean and Sal display the endearing but ultimately toxic self-absorption of the typical teen. Engaged to start a job, Sal simply does not show up because a party is brewing. He makes love to a girl, having wooed her with deep questions like, "What do you want out of life?" and then leaving her as quickly as possible afterward. Later, he wants to go back and try again, romantically dreaming of the things he will tell her. "I wanted to go and get Rita again and tell her a lot more things, and really make love to her this time, and calm her fears about men. Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together; sophistication demands that they submit to sex immediately without proper preliminary talk. Not courting talk - real straight talk about souls, for life is holy and every moment is precious." Then he hears a locomotive howling in the mountains, and Rita is completely forgotten.

At some point, Sal (Kerouac) realizes that his beloved Dean is Mad (as opposed to mad, as in frenzied fun), and that his madness had "bloomed into a weird flower." As Dean drags his friends eastward, back from their migrations to the west, Sal observes that this is "the new and complete Dean, grown to maturity. I said to myself, My God, he's changed. Fury spat out of his eyes when he told of things he hated; great glows of joy replaced this when he suddenly got happy; every muscle twitched to live and go."

Sal, meanwhile, is simply "looking for the woman I wanted to marry."

And for a while, it seems that perhaps he has done so.

With that teenage assurance that all things brown and basic are better than all things white and complex, Sal falls in with a young Mexican migrant worker on a bus, beds her, and begins to travel around with her. She believes she has found a ticket to a better life; he is just "going with the flow." Though she has a child, and no prospects, he eventually leaves her, saying "See you in New York, Terry." And off he goes, with nary a backward glance. I kept wondering, whatever happens to poor Terry in the end? We never know, nor is it deemed important.

From Madness, Dean graduates to the symbolic status of Fool. "I suddenly realized that Dean, by virtue of his enormous series of sins, was becoming the Idiot, the Imbecile, the Saint of the lot...That's what Dean was, the HOLY GOOF... He was BEAT - the root, the soul of Beatific. What was he knowing? He tried all in his power to tell me what he was knowing, and they envied that about me, my position at his side, defending him and drinking him in as they once tried to do."

From Holy Fool, Dean devolves to Monster. "I knew Dean had gone mad again. There was no chance to send money to either wife if he took all his savings out of the bank and bought a car. Everything was up, the jig and all. Behind him charred ruins smoked. He rushed westward over the groaning and awful continent again, and soon he would arrive... It was like the imminent arrival of Gargantua; preparations had to be made to widen the gutters of Denver and foreshorten certain laws to fit his suffering bulk and bursting ecstasies."

In the end, to no one's surprise but his own, Dean lets Sal down, too.

And for all the drinking, sex, prairie ecstasy, drugs, parties, "dig its" and "wows," nothing ever really happens to these characters, and nothing ever really comes of anyone's association with Dean. It's like one of those guru on the mountaintop jokes: you get there after arduous trials and he's just a nerdy guy in a clown suit.

Like the characters in F. Scott Fitzgerald, I am left wondering why so many beautiful words have been spent on people who ultimately mean little, and don't seem to make much progress in the course of the story. While we can argue that both Gatsby and Sal are at least observing, feeling - if nothing more noble than desire and an aching, childlike "want," - the people they spend so much time observing, noting, envying, even adoring, are more or less worthless.

Dean's wild enthusiasm for life is based on always getting "yes" for an answer. When he doesn't get it, he moves on. Character, however, is formed when life says "no" to you, and you can still get up in the morning and do what needs to be done, and still find life beautiful. For someone in the story to have that epiphany would have ultimately been refreshing. At the end of the book, I wished only for a salad, a bath, and a nice clean bed.

The redeeming feature of the book, however, is Kerouac's verbal legerdemain, and his passionate, almost physical love affair with America. Having sat with a map and slid the names of iconic American towns around my mouth as a kid - Fresno, Yuma, Ashtabula, Lake Tahoe - I resonated with Kerouac's ecstatic litanies of place names as his characters wander or surge from east to west, west to east. (Oh my gosh... I'm actually in Nashville, Memphis, Little Rock, Dallas...) It is perhaps this ecstasy that has made this book a touchstone for young people just passing from childhood into the big world. Kerouac's poetic descriptions of his discovery of AMERICA, solid and dusty and humid and fertile and mad beneath his feet as he travels, have inspired so many young men, and some young women, to strap on a backpack, leave their parents fretting in the doorway, stick out their thumbs, and go, as the Simon and Garfunkle song says, "to look for America."

We can only hope they return with a little more insight than Dean, or even Sal. Or even, perhaps, Jack Kerouac.


Popular Posts