On the Road by Jack Kerouac

On the RoadThis review contains spoilers.

“… 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 Roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!'”

 

On The Road, by Jack Kerouac is a picaresque novel set between 1946 and 1950. I understand that it is based on some of Kerouac’s real life experiences with Neal Cassady. Although I haven’t read any biographies, I know he was also friends with Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. Since I’m unfamiliar with his life, I’ll focus my comments strictly on the novel.

It is divided into five parts and written in first person past. The novel tells the story of the friendship between Sal Paradise, a New York (New Jersey) writer and his friend Dean Moriarty. Starting as it does just after World War II, Sal is a former G.I. who has also been married once.

He hangs out with his young, intellectual friends, but is determined at some point to get out on the road and see the country. Like a lot of youth in all different time periods, Sal is anxious to play around and become a part of the scene. The particular scene at this point in time consists of bars, jazz clubs, steamy Negro night clubs, and lots of booze and grass.

Dean is high-level bullshit artist who is half-crazy. From Denver, he spent a fair amount of his youth traveling with his father, who is a bum, and in reform school for stealing cars. Sal is attracted to him right away and they strike up a friendship as they travel back and forth across the country.

The brief plot involves Dean’s mad dash between women, most notably Marylou in Denver, whom he marries, Camille in San Francisco, whom he divorces Marylou to marry. They have two children. Eventually, he divorces Camille to marry Inez in New York, though he abandons her to live with Camille. Another plot element is the intensity of the parties that these guys and their friends have, growing crazier and crazier until Dean finally abandons a feverish Sal in Mexico City.

I can tell that I’ve grown old because there are many things in this novel that I loved when I was young and that I now find abhorrent. One, of course, is the treatment of women. Dean treats them like garbage and even Sal agrees that the perfect woman is one who simply lies there and tolerates the “gone” behavior of their men with a smile. All of Dean’s women seem to mature far beyond Dean, yet they tolerate his behavior.

Dean is one of the least admirable anti-heroes I’ve ever read. He is a self-centered thief and con man who doesn’t care even the tiniest bit for anyone that he hurts–and ultimately, he hurts everyone, including Sal. I’m down with a certain amount of drinking and drug use, but stealing one car after another, wrecking cars he’s been entrusted with, going through one woman after another with no concern for any of them, recklessly placing the lives of his friends in jeopardy, abandoning his friends, I can’t understand any of that. Nor can I understand why and how Sal still loves him at the end of the book. 

As far as telling a story, the books pretty much tells the same story over and over till the last page. There is no real character development and book doesn’t seem to have much to say, except this: take chances with your life and do not settle for a life unlived.

Although there are big sections of the book that are poorly written, there are also sections that absolutely sing with life. The long passages cobbled together with all kinds of metaphors sometimes achieve a roll and pitch that makes them almost musical and takes the book to a whole new level.

A brief note on the movie that was released a few years ago starring Kristen Stewart as Marylou. The film takes the story of the book and alters it in such a way that it clashes severely. One example of this is that homosexuality is severely looked down on the book, yet it is an important part of the movie. In the book, homosexuals are routinely referred to as “fags” and “queers,” yet the movie makes Carlo Marx homosexual and Dean a bi-sexual, yet he’s supposed to hate the “queers” more than anyone else. The great parts of the book are completely ignored in the film and it is really just a two hour orgy of sex and drugs. Not at all worth seeing. Read the book.

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5 thoughts on “On the Road by Jack Kerouac

    1. In the hands of a gifted writer, such James Joyce or Samuel Beckett, it can be extremely effective. I think Kerouac wanted to recreate the feelings of a speed high and–to a certain extent–he was successful. But it didn’t always produce good literature! 🙂

  1. The World War II experience, which my father and uncle participated in, set the stage for the beat generation. At such an impressionable age they along with thousands of other young men road across the continent hardly staying more than one night in one place, fought like mad during the day and drank wine from a bottle with strange French women in the evening. They started the next day seeing their buddies cut down in a vicious fire fight.
    I enjoyed reading “On the Road” which reminded me of my youthful experiences, which were pale compared to the ones my elders lived through.

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