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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.

Other Stuff

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.

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19 Comments Post a comment
  1. I LOVED On The Road when I first read it in my early 20s. Hated it when I reread it at around 30. What put me off the most the second time around was how toxis Sal and Dean’s relationship is. Somewhere in the intervening years people like Dean stopped being interesting to me and started being intensely repulsive.

    Like

    January 8, 2016
    • Yes. I felt the same way. Dean seemed super cool the first time I read the novel. This time around he just came across as an egomaniacal, self-centered jerk.

      Like

      January 8, 2016
  2. I think you’re absolutely right about time and place. I’ve never had a desire to read the work. however, a work about the creation of the work would be interesting (and I know they exist).

    Like

    January 8, 2016
  3. I have not read this one. I do think our perception of the book changes as we go older and pass through different situations in life. Even the simple example of a fairytale holds different meaning when we read it years down the line

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    January 8, 2016
  4. Part of the reason I hold off reading this book is that it would either depress me or inspire me to do something wildly irresponsible (pack it in and hit the road). I’m going to wait until my 30s to read it.

    Like

    January 8, 2016
  5. Personally, I think it’s important to read a book like “On The Road” in a historic context. It was a post-war, prosperous, America, when the dream was a wife, two kids, and a house in the suburbs. The Beats were saying, basically, “Not everyone is living the same American dream.”

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    January 8, 2016
  6. I agree with you. I read it for the first time last year (I’m in my 30s) and hated it. I get the appeal of traveling and being on the road with no commitments but I really disliked the ways in which they felt the need to achieve their freedoms – often through the disregard of other people. Also found it fairly misogynistic. I disliked the main characters and hated one scene in particular (that bothered me as a parent). Would I have enjoyed it more in my 20s? Not sure.

    Like

    January 8, 2016
  7. I agree, how we perceive a piece of art changes depending on where we are in life. I read On the Road when I was 18 and idealistic, at a time I believed that I could change the world. I still believe these things and am thankful for the dreamers who came before.

    Like

    January 8, 2016
  8. I read this in my mid-late 20s and at first it filled me with wanderlust and envy but by the end I was seething at the total lack of responsibility and Sal’s inability to stay in one place for more than two pages at a time.

    Like

    January 8, 2016
  9. but, still, he’s got a great ear, that most precious of all gifts a writer can have. plot? entirely meaningless backwater recidivist nonsense because 2016

    Like

    January 8, 2016
  10. I read On the Road for the first time last year (and reviewed it on my blog) and I just could not stand it! I think it is forever tied to its period and is becoming less relevant to each passing generation. I think Capote’s sneer is apt given the many abortive attempts Kerouac made to try and ‘write’ On the Road before finally resorting to just typing it. I found Dean to be an annoying false prophet, a ‘Holy Goof’ as one character calls him. What I disliked the most was probably the treatment of women in the novel and Dean’s taste for 13-15-year-old girls. An insight into attitudes of the time perhaps, and the novel may have some enjoyable and enduring aspects, but other works have since taken them on and made something easier to enjoy from them.

    Like

    January 8, 2016
  11. I’ve never liked Kerouac, but I never read him until after I’d “settled down” so-to-speak.

    Like

    January 9, 2016
  12. Funny. I’m reading it now. Because it is one of those books everyone is supposed to read. I’m 66 and have not read it before. I just haven’t gotten “into it” yet. Thought maybe I have not read enough pages, but after reading all this, I think it may be the age thing. I travel all over the country in a motorhome, see places, meet people, and am living a good, clean, middle -class life – happy and loving it. On the road already seems a bit depressing to me.

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    January 12, 2016
  13. Oh goodness! This resonates so much with how I feel about On the Road. The feelings for this book, are almost like the bittersweet ending that Sal has with Dean at the end of the book itself.

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    January 13, 2016
  14. Great post!Kerouac is absolutely haunting! “That’s not writing, it’s just typing” Beautiful.

    I’ve just started my own blog too, take a look at https://darrensharpewrites.wordpress.com and follow if you find it interesting! Many MANY more to come 🙂

    Like

    January 20, 2016
  15. Greg #

    I first picked up On the Road when I was 22. I had just returned from my second trip to South east Asia and I remember being impressed with what irresponsible assholes the main characters were. I read it again about 20 years later and I agreed with Capote.

    Like

    January 22, 2016
  16. Agree with your Final thoughts. It’s a good book and I’m in my 20s now. This book encourages me to discover the world as much as I can by just reading to any little thing. But the thing is, this book is not a type of social science or skill book. We don’t have to follow these characters to be “good” people. So I think Jack just wanna point out the special, different personality of Neal Cassady and all their special trips around the US.

    All we have to do is to enjoy this book, it’s not intended for traveler, it’s not intended for those who haven’t traveled… I don’t need to be above 30s to realize that Dean is a crazy, irresponsible person and I don’t imitate him neither.

    I love this book anyway. A feeling when I’m on the road just comes back when I read it.

    Like

    January 29, 2016
  17. Zara Sheikh #

    I completely agree with your second-time-round assessment. I started reading it a couple months ago and detest the disorder. Perhaps I’m just used to more ordered English novels.

    Like

    January 31, 2016
  18. The whole point of this book, or any of Kerouac’s books, is ENTHUSIASM. JK looked at the world with a holiness, a religiousness, that is infectious and saintly. And he was a great writer, not just a good one. For those who haven’t, you need to read the Original Scroll version of On The Road that came out a few years ago. It is the book as Kerouac intended it to be read. It is a holy, mad, beautiful thing. Kerouac loved an America that has disappeared beneath the veneer of ‘progress’, commercialization and homogenization. He didn’t travel across the country to ‘see the boys’ so that they could play video games and make ironic comments about memes or something. He traveled across the country to find a lost Gnostic unity, to see if ‘you had a vision or I had a vision or…’, to MOVE, and he wrote it down in great Wolfean torrents. OTR isn’t even his best book, not by a long shot. His best writing is in Doctor Sax and Visions of Cody. Read those two books, then come back to On The Road: The Original Scroll. Kerouac had something that we, as a condition of post-modernity, have lost, and that was excitement, poetry, the sacredness of the quotidian. As Charles Olson said, “Life is preoccupation with itself”. That is what Kerouac sought to express. He didn’t seek to leave us a ‘well-wrought urn’. He leaves in the grit so that we can get some sense of process. Really you have to read his prose as one big poem. I’m tired of JK being dismissed as ‘juvenile’ literature when in fact he was just as full of depth and mystery as Dostoevsky or Joyce. That’s my two cents anyway.

    Like

    December 19, 2016

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