Newest Review: ... in search of something missing from their lives staying in one place. I think the key quote of the book is "We know time."... more
Man You Gotta Go!
On the Road - Jack Kerouac
Member Name: Mauri
On the Road - Jack Kerouac
Date: 28/02/02, updated on 28/02/02 (2031 review reads)
Advantages: A classic
I don’t think this is true although I would say that on each reading (in my late teens, mid twenties and mid thirties) I found another aspect of the story that I connected with.
THE JOURNEY (some spoilers)
'On the Road' can be seen as simple tale of friendship and discovery. The story is told by Sal Paradise a young struggling novelist living with his elderly aunt in New Jersey; this is a thinly disguised autobiographical account of Kerouac's own life, living with his mother rather than his aunt.
Sal has friends on the west coast and one of them has invited him to go and live there. On the way he wants to stop in Denver to see his close friend Dean Moriaty. Dean Moriaty is a free spirit, a womaniser, a hard drinking, drug taking wild elemental force of nature and he is based on Kerouac's real life friend Neal Cassidy. The story related real events in Kerouac’s life.
‘On the Road’ is divided in to four distinct parts each describing a journey. The first is Sal’s trip from New Jersey to Denver and on to the west coast. Sal hitches rides and all the while is taking in a view of the mid-western landscape, the heartland of America. Arriving in Denver he finds that Dean has fallen out with Sal’s other friends in the city, they have become tired of Dean wild antics, only Carlo Marx (based on Allan Ginsberg the famous beat poet) is still on good terms with him.
The three hang out together until Sal decides to leave for San Francisco to meet up with is friend Remi Bencoeur. Dean promises to follow when he can. After getting to San Francisco Sal realises that he has made a mistake and quickly leaves for Southern California where he meets and befriends a young Mexican girl on the way. He stays a while then returns to New York alone.
The second trip starts when Dean drops in on Sal while he is staying with some relatives in Virginia. Dean is not alone, waiting in the car are Ed Dunkel who is on his way to pick up is wife in New Orleans and a girlfriend Marylou. Dean’s ‘other’ girlfriend Camille is in San Francisco having his baby. Dean’ s plan is to return to Camille and get rid of Marylou by setting her up with Sal. The trip goes ahead but in the end Sal annoyed with Dean decides to return home once again.
The third journey is from New York to Denver to San Francisco and back. Sal travels to Denver and then on to San Francisco to see Dean but when he arrives he soon realises that he and Camille are having problems. Dean is having a hard time from all, over his irresponsible treatment of his family, typically he decides to go off with Sal back to the east coast with a mad plan to then travel on to Italy. Part hitching and part driving they arrive in Chicago and take in some jazz; eventually they make it back to New York.
The last trip is from New York to Denver to Mexico. Sal even though he has had his novel published, is not yet ready to settle down. He goes off to Denver to meet up once again with Dean and from there they both drive down to Mexico where the famous events in the Mexican brothel take place. When Sal falls ill Dean abandons him in Mexico travelling back to New York on the spur of the moment to marry another girlfriend. Eventually the two meet up in New York, Sal forgives Dean but their relationship has forever changed.
T MY GENERATION
On one level ‘On the Road’ is a journey to discover the real 'America' on another level it is a journey of self-discovery. Kerouac introduces us to his friends, a motley collection of young, free thinking, free spirited individuals all searching for something more out of their lives in post-war America.
Essentially this book is exploring the innocence of a whole post WW2 generation. Youth culture had found it's voice but in a spirit of celebration rather than (intentional) confrontation. It exemplified a naivety, which was lost in later years when a more cynical attitude prevailed among writers (including Kerouac).
'On The Road' still has freshness about it but it can also seem dated in its sentiments. You cannot look at the characters in a modern context and feel the same way about them. Yet despite this it remains a snapshot of a particular time, which was very important in the underlying culture of the late 20th century.
Underlying these themes is a deeper philosophy about the nature of perception and expression, which is evident by the style of writing and nature of the story that is being told.
DRUGS and JAZZ
Kerouac is famous for creating spontaneous prose and ‘On the Road’ is the first of his novels that uses this technique. It is said that in order not to break the flow of the text his manuscripts were written on a huge roll of paper.
Where did the idea of spontaneous prose come from and what was the idea behind it?
To answer these question we have to look closely at two factors that play an important part in the story, drugs and music (specifically Bebop Jazz). Kerouac was frustrated with his attempts at writing, he believed traditional literature to be a flawed medium which was unable to express ideas and feelings directly. Writing has to be learnt and the process of reading and understanding the meaning is not immediate. The d
elay invariably allows the brain to subtly taint the message with it’s own experiences and pre-conceptions. Music is different it can connect with an individual directly across cultural, racial or intellectual barriers. It can be a purer form of communication between human beings. In some ways understanding music is instinctive, the reasoning part of the brain is not involved. To Keroauc the new spontaneous Bebop jazz was the ultimate expression of this idea. Kerouac envied the ability of the great jazz musicians of the time, Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie to directly connect with their audience by spontaneously expressing feelings through playing their instruments. There are some wonderful passages in the book where Kerouac describes his emotions as he listens to jazz in a Chicago club.
Keroauc wanted to achieve the same effect in his writing, to connect directly with the reader, cutting out the middle-man (the reasoning part of the brain), in order to do this, the time that it takes for an idea to be thought and expressed in either speech or writing has to be reduced to a minimum. Keroauc and the rest of the ‘beats’ believed one way to achieve this was through the use of drugs like amphetamines that enabled your thought processes to speed up. The novel is filled with passages were the characters act and speak in this fashion as spontaneously as possible, this Keroauc believed was the only way that he could deliver to his readers not what he thought but what he felt. The notion of speed and movement, driving in a fast car, constantly travelling never stopping for long is also central to this idea, and the book is written representation of this philosophy.
The Beat writers believed that this movement both physical and of the soul was essential in order to ‘live’ and be true to yourself. The importance of being free is emphasised. Emotional relationships, settling down, having a steady job, all work to remove this f
The irony is that Keroauc himself although considered by many to be the embodiment of these idea never really achieved this ideal, he was all his life trapped by his upbringing, as a catholic and by his family He had a tempestuous relationship with his alcoholic mother whom he lived with on and off up until his early death from alcohol abuse.
The true embodiment of the Beat ideal was Neal Cassidy and Keroauc realised this and makes it obvious in the way he represents the characters in the book. Dean not Sal is the pure expression of freedom and restlessness, Sal tries to follow his lead but in the end all he can do (like Keroauc in real life) is to record his attempts in his writings.
On the road is written with a great enthusiasm and a lust for life, it would naturally appeal to a younger generation. The popularity of the book in the late 50’s and early 60’s signalled the creation of youth culture after the end of the Second World War. It was influential in giving a voice to a previously unheard section of American society and served as a blueprint for the attitudes developed by liberal thinkers in the sixties. By many it was taken to be as a sort of revolutionary statement attacking America and it institutions. Keroauc never intended this in fact he believed it to be celebration of the new post war America his vision was not political.
‘On The Road’ still remains one of my favourite books; it is at times funny, moving, exciting and sad. The spontaneous prose doesn’t always work some passages are little more than gibberish but when it does work then it is truly poetic and gives us some of the most beautiful passages of modern literature.
The book was published when Keroauc had already written most of his novels and sadly Kerouac became haunted by the success of the book and the legions of fans that it attracted. In the end he died a very sad bitter man destro
yed by his addiction to alcohol. In contrast Neal Cassidy fully embraced the sixties and the liberal atmosphere of the period. He famously drove the ‘Magic Bus’ as part of Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters as they journeyed across America, and event chronicled in Tom Wolfe’s ‘The Electric Kool-aid Acid Test’. Cassidy too died at an early age suffering a massive heart attack, while walking home by a railway track after a night’s heavy partying.
More than anything else ‘On the Road’ is a lasting testament to their long friendship and to a more innocent time.
Thank you for reading and rating this opinion.
© Mauri 2002