As I might have mentioned before, I’m not one to reach for American writers. I’m not sure if I have a weird taste aversion from my high school AP American Studies class or what it is, but I usually prefer British classics over American. With that said, I’ve come to find American authors that I do enjoy reading; however, I’m not sure if Jack Kerouac will make that list.
On the Road is about one young man’s travels, which take him across the country multiple times. Living as a writer in New York City, Sal seeks adventure and wants to experience the West Coast. Luckily for him, he has numerous friends that also enjoy traveling, adventure, and who will also be making the cross-country trek. Sal gets to California mainly by hitch-hiking, which gives him great tales to share with the reader that include quite a cast of characters. Throughout Sal’s travels, the one companion that continues to re-enter the narrative and stay by Sal’s side is Dean Moriarty. Dean is an interesting character that can be described as having manic tendencies. He loves to steal cars for the various trips and meet women along the way; he also has numerous children throughout the United States because of his enjoyment of female companionship. In the final part of the novel, with Dean and Sal both quite a bit older, they decide to take a trip south to Mexico and experience life outside the confinement of the United States.
Jack Kerouac wrote this novel using inspiration from his journals that he kept while traveling throughout the United States. As the Wikipedia entry explains, “The novel, published in 1957, is a roman à clef, with many key figures in the Beat movement, such as William S. Burroughs (Old Bull Lee), Allen Ginsberg (Carlo Marx) and Neal Cassady (Dean Moriarty) represented by characters in the book, including Kerouac himself as the narrator Sal Paradise.”
To start, the one thing I enjoyed about this novel was the clear and descriptive prose: “I was halfway across America, at the dividing line between the East of my youth and the West of my future, and maybe that’s why it happened right there and then, that strange red afternoon.” Great images of past and present; youth and old age; city and country all appear within this one line. I loved the constant juxtapositions of East Coast culture versus West Coast culture that were rampant throughout the novel. And to be quite honest, Kerouac’s poetic lines are why I finished this novel. I also loved the interesting minor characters Sal encountered throughout his travels; it seemed like all of their stories were just waiting to be written.
The back of my copy boasts that this book defined a generation. Clueless as to what this meant, I turned to my old friend Wikipedia to offer some guidance: “[On the Road] is considered a defining work of the postwar Beat and Counterculture generations, with its protagonists living life against a backdrop of jazz, poetry, and drug use.” Further on in this Wikipedia entry, the Beat movement is described as “the state of mind from which all unessentials have been stripped, leaving it receptive to everything around it, but impatient with trivial obstructions. To be beat is to be at the bottom of your personality, looking up.” Perhaps the present-day Minimalist movement shares similar characteristics of the Beat movement.
Overall, I’m sort of on the fence about this book. While I loved reading about Sal’s travels, I think some of his anecdotes were problematic and questionable; never mind that he idolized Hemingway. In the first part of the novel, Sal states, “From there on I carried a big stick with me in the tent in case they got the idea we Mexicans were fouling up their trailer camp. They thought I was a Mexican, of course; and in a way I am.” I had a hard time accepting this thought, as Sal did have a real home he could return to in New Jersey. Claiming his experience when living and working in California was equally as hard as the Mexicans’ seems off-base. I also didn’t understand or share Sal’s obsession with Dean Moriarty.
I think Sal’s character could be described as a cross between Holden Caulfield and Hunter S. Thompson (and Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas was noticeably influenced by On the Road). So that characterization should tell you as to whether you will enjoy the narrator enough to read the book.
To Read or Not to Read?
If you enjoy J.D. Salinger and Hunter S. Thompson, I would give this book a go. Although I will say that I thoroughly enjoyed Thompson more than Kerouac, which is probably due to Thompson’s humor. I’m glad I was able to cross On the Road off my RGRC list, but I might pick up one more Kerouac book before making a more concrete decision as to whether I enjoy him as an author or not.