- Vancouver, British Columbia - In the years after World War II, the generation of young adults in the US were listless and without identity. Technology had advanced so rapidly, and with it, culture. Devastation and death never before seen had scarred the world, and there was unease about returning to life before the war. What did it mean to be a young person in those days?
Jack Kerouac sought those answers, and spent years travelling to find himself in each corner of the country he could. With little money and even less direction, he would find himself drifting from place to place to meet up with friends and search for the intangible IT…that thing that would define his life. Along the way, Neal Cassady ingrained himself in Jack’s life and his selfish, shallow, womanizing, philosophic musings provided a contrast to Jack’s own observations about life on the road. The friendship was strange, but the two had an immense fascination with each other, and their adventures wound up defining them more than any single destination they arrived at.
The writing of On the Road was an arduous project that met with a lot of rejection, all of which Kerouac took personally. He sunk into depression, but he still persisted in presenting what he felt was an important work of art. When he finally got accepted, his publisher Viking Press was worried about libel, and insisted he change the names. As such, Neal became Dean Moriarty, and Jack became Sal Paradise. I find Sal’s name to be intensely ironic, given how little peace Sal has with himself. But Dean’s name is bang-on; the man is a nemesis to everyone he meets, including himself.
To fully grasp this book, you must take into account the time it was written in and the generation it represented. Much like The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, although the concept had been done before, the voice had never truly been captured. There is despair, yet hopefulness. There is death, but the pursuit of life. There is sex between individuals yearning for love. There are drugs but all in the name of understanding reality. Kerouac presents it all honestly, with neither praise nor condemnation. It simply is the only way they all know how to live.
Kerouac’s writing style is perhaps the strength and weakness of the book. He has a fluidity and a rhythm to his writing that is hard to match. I’ve never read anyone else who has such a strange command of English. His words are like lyrics, like they should only ever be read aloud in front of a microphone while someone plays bongos softly in the background. The problem with this style of writing is that you can’t read it casually, or with any distraction. If you allow your eyes to gloss over for only a second, you immediately get lost as to what is going on.
It can be difficult also to determine what are Kerouac’s thoughts and reflections, versus things that are happening at that moment. Perhaps this was done intentionally though, to illustrate the very weak boundary between the two.
There’s a permeating sadness to this whole book that oozes off the pages. It seems as if most of the characters are on the verge of a nervous breakdown, or a psychotic fit. This is the schism of Kerouac’s generation: the attempt to stay ahead of the mental collapse by running from city to city.
I won’t lie to you, this was a difficult read. Not only due to the need for constant engagement I mentioned earlier, but also the sheer number of characters and the lack of a single cohesive story. I can’t really dock marks for a lack of cohesion (as much as I’d like to), because again that’s the point of the book. Life isn’t about cohesion; it’s about growth and identity. But I can fault it for all the characters. They drift in and out, and at times they don’t seem to have unique voices. You need a flow chart to keep up with who is who, who is doing who, who owes who money, who is driving who…it’s difficult.
Apparently, Kerouac kept his manuscript for this book on one huge long “scroll” with no paragraph breaks or similar formatting. That might be why you had trouble getting it accepted Jack; it could be gold, but no one likes block text. Even with the formatting put in, it was still an arduous read though.
As a brief tangent, I’d like to mention King Crimson’s 1982 release Beat. The album is a tribute to the beat movement that Kerouac and Cassady embodied, but I think it’s far more accessible. There’s life in that album that matches the hectic sense of loss in this book, and many of the themes are shared. Go listen to it, and perhaps read Doug Ferguson’s “History of the Crimson King (Part 9) – Beat.”
I’ll be frank in that, as much as I appreciated and understood it, I didn’t like the book. There was no joy in reading it – it had become a chore. I applaud Kerouac’s style and his ability to capture a generation’s voice, but the book is very difficult to read. It’s good for historical and literary buffs, but the casual reader will most likely be turned off pretty fast.
Also…they made a movie based off this? And Kristen Stewart is in it? How? Why? Well, apparently it got awful reviews at Cannes, so there you go.
Rating: 3/5 Sour Grapes