Book #84: On The Road
I used to love On The Road. Loved it.
When I first read the novel in my early-to-mid 20s, it became a new personal favorite, along with Into the Wild.
This novel is made to be read in your 20s, when you’re single and untethered. Whether you act on it and follow Kerouac’s footsteps or simply dream about getting out on the road is up to you. But my guess is, at that stage of life, you’ll get the itch.
But as I revisit On The Road 15 years later, now with a full-time job, married, the proud father of two boys, I look at this novel and I think WTF? Why would anyone do this?
It’s not the traveling part that gets me. It’s the chaos. The drugs, casual sex, the driving all the way across the country just to “hang out with the boys.”
Fifteen years ago? Would’ve made perfect sense! Sometimes, it’s just a matter of context when you’re reading a novel. The when, and even the where, can affect how you view a book.
So, this time around, I wasn’t near as taken with Kerouac and On The Road.
There’s not a lot of plot. Basically, Sal Paradise (who represents Kerouac when he went on said trip) drives/hitchhikes/hops the bus across the country—occasionally with friends, mainly Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassidy), occasionally alone.
Along the way, there’s benzedrine, an old-school drug of some sort, lots of talking in cars, and lots of mentions of the word “mad,” as in “he”s mad,” “as in he’s exuberantly happy without a care in the world.”
Of Kerouac, Truman Capote once said, “That’s not writing. That’s typing.” I wouldn’t go that far, but Kerouac isn’t going to blow you away with his prose. He has moments, though:
“I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn’t know who I was – I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I’d never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn’t know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost.”
I’ve posted about that passage before, and I just love it. Such a haunting feel. There’s other strong ones too:
“I realized these were all the snapshots which our children would look at someday with wonder, thinking their parents had lived smooth, well-ordered lives and got up in the morning to walk proudly on the sidewalks of life, never dreaming the raggedy madness and riot of our actual lives, our actual night, the hell of it, the senseless emptiness.”
That’s rather, well, dark…and I don’t agree with it, but it is beautifully written.
In all, On The Road didn’t do it for me this time. I can appreciate its place in literary history as a icon of the Beat Movement. But, like I said, I think time and place matter a good bit when you read this novel.
I’ll give it 2.5 capsules of benzedrine out of 5.
The Opening: “I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up.”
The Meaning: Get your swerve on while you still can? I don’t know. Maybe every novel doesn’t need to have some overarching symbolic meaning.
Highlights: Kerouac’s writing is descriptive and energetic. He definitely makes you want to head out west and go hiking…or at least me.
Lowlights: I feel like you have to be in the right frame of mind to truly appreciate On The Road. It’s definitely not for everyone.
Memorable line: “I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost.”
Final thoughts: Kerouac was a good, not great, writer. On The Road is a good, not great, book.