Updated on August 5, 2015
35. ‘On The Road’ by Jack Kerouac
‘On The Road’ moves at the pace of a speeding car. It is the story of the fantastically named Sal Paradise – part of the ‘beat’ generation – and his numerous road trips across America in an era of jazz, booze and poetry. He travels by any means necessary to meet up with his far-flung friends in various American cities, and he spends his summers caught up in the wild parties and romantic entanglements of an adventurous young man in 1950s America.
Sal’s narrative voice is informal and sometimes colloquial – if anybody could tell me what a ‘dingledodie’ is, I’d love to know. The story rushes onwards and you can’t help but strap yourself in and go along for the ride. Sal starts every journey with a sense of freedom and optimism that is truly contagious, and his adventures are fantastic. But eventually he always turns for home – New York – and the stability he has living with his relatives there.
In one sense the book is Gatsby-esque, in that Sal – the narrator – is always overshadowed by a more spectacular character, his friend Dean Moriarty. To call Dean eccentric would be an understatement: he loves to drink, dance and, above all, womanise. He has several wives throughout the story. He has children with them, then repeatedly divorces them or abandons them on one side of the country, only to return to them again. He drives like a wild thing, speeding through the night with borrowed cars and even writing them off in accidents. He is unable to settle, and has to constantly travel, making friends, philosophising and hanging out in jazz bars along the way.
Above all, Dean is a likeable character. There is no spite in anything he does: the women he loves, he loves rapturously. When he hears a piece of music he is carried away by it. Everything he does is in the pursuit of fun, not because he enjoys hurting people, but because he can’t keep still. Sal always finds himself coming back to Dean, because such an irresistible character is impossible to stay away from.
The characters in this book are very real – even the ones we only meet very briefly – and this probably has to do with the semi-autobiographical nature of the novel. The truth may be stranger than fiction, and Kerouac certainly drew on his own travels when he wrote ‘On The Road’. Hassel, for instance, is often mentioned by name: other characters go looking for him, but he is never seen and he becomes a little like Godot because of this aura of mystery.
Essentially, this is a story of young people trying to find their identities, in the era of the Cold War and McCarthyism, when paranoia gripped America. The novel is a vivid, captivating, whirlwind read, as the characters struggle with their identities, and are perpetually drawn back to the simultaneous freedom and pain of the road.
“…the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles.”
My friend bought me this for my birthday. I put it on my wishlist because (like so many of the books I’ve asked for recently) the film is coming out and I wanted to read it first. I’m so glad I did!
My housemate went to London quite recently and saw the original manuscript: it’s one long scroll, and Kerouac claimed to have written the entire thing in three weeks. I’d love to go and see it. And also write a novel this brilliant in three weeks. NaNoWriMo anyone?
If you enjoyed my review, why not buy the book and let me know what you think?