May 27th, 2013
On the Road by Kerouac is one of those novels I was somewhat embarrassed not to have read yet, but I was also somewhat ok with it. It seemed like I sort of already knew a lot about it–hippy road trip in search of meaning and freedom and friendships or whatever. So imagine my surprise to find that the novel is set between 1947 and 1950, before the term “hippy” existed. I had fast-forwarded my image of the novel 15 years into the future. So I had a lot to learn.
I’m linking to the Wikipedia page for this novel because, well, it’s better than Amazon, but really I think a lot of that page is bunk. On the Road struck me as an incredibly apolitical novel. Even the narrator’s, Sal Paradise, experience of fighting in WWII is boiled down to getting drunk and passing out in a bathroom. McCarthyism, who the president is, or even the conformity of the middle class that Sal and his friends are the opposite of, never makes it onto the page. Maybe we’re just supposed to sense it, or know from the history books, but to me this was well and truly a travelog, a true devotional tribute to the wonders of America.
Sal crosses the country from his home in New Jersey several times, usually bound for California more or less, usually in the company of his friend, Dean Moriarty. The title is true, this is a book about hitchhiking and overnight buses and ride-shares. Much of it is quotidian, but Kerouac’s joyful prose makes it shine. This book makes it pretty evident that the two things that guy like to do was write and move. Listen: “It was an ordinary bus trip with crying babies and hot, sun and countryfolk getting on at one Penn town after another, till we got on the plain of Ohio and really rolled, up by Ashtabula and straight across Indiana in the night…” Nothing fancy, but it makes me want to go, too, nonetheless.
The whole book is like that more or less: we went here, we went there, we got drunk, hijinx ensued, in the morning we sobered up and moved on. The “we” is usually himself and Dean, with occasional hangers on. Dean Moriarty is a twitching, hyper, occasionally charming nutjob, and one of the problems I had with the book is I never saw the charm in Dean that Sal does. Dean is a wonderful driver who loves to travel, and who attempts to help Sal out when it suits him. I can’t quite armchair diagnose Dean with a mental illness, but clearly he had one–always drenched in sweat and maniacally fidgeting, he can barely sustain a conversation and rarely sleeps. He is also frequently amoral, cheerful bouncing among assorted wives, abandoning them when the mood suits and taking all their money to travel. By the end of the book, he has fathered 4 kids, married 3 women, and is living with the second wife. Lucky lady.
I didn’t much love Sal, either, though he was easier to take. The best passage in the book is when he meets a Mexican girl named Terry and attempts to settled down with her and her son Johnny, supporting them by picking cotton. He abruptly leaves her and the child when he gets sick of working hard–he can always wire home for bus fare and return to living with his aunt in New Jersey, but with a woman and child he’d be pretty much stuck. That’s really Sal’s only shot at real grownup life and he ditches it post-haste.
I’ve read through the GoodReads reviews of this book, as I am wont to do, and the ones who don’t like it are generally incensed at how wildly politically incorrect it is. Surprise–it’s nearly 60 years old. The black characters aren’t really characters at all, merely ambassadors of jazz music (the concert passages are amazingly beautiful, while conveying almost no information about the actual music played). The women fare far worse, because until folks of other races, Dean and Sal are actually interested in women, at least for certain purposes. I had to keep my eyebrows under control, because Sal frequently mentions seeing an attractive woman walk by and wishes to be in her. I kid you not! Women are treated as on a par with booze and drugs in this novel, things you get and have and use up.
It makes for some repellant passages, but you’ll note Sal is honest–he never attempts to valorize himself or the truly horrible Dean. They are what they are; they do what they want.
I found the book honest and illuminating, especially the final trip, when they go as far as Mexico and Sal comes to realize that Dean is truly falling apart. He can’t abandon him until Dean does it first, though–his loyalty and especially the loyalty of Dean’s woman were the things I didn’t understand. The ending was grim and, I felt, accurate to who these characters were.
I hated them–Sal was a entitled suburban boy playing at being poor. At one point he steals bread from family stores as if he “needed” it instead of just having squandered his money drinking. He is always skirting the edge of poverty, and calling his aunt when he gets too close. When he encounters the genuinely destitute, he treats them as colourful gags for his amusement. He never helps anyone but himself and stupid Dean, and Dean never helps anyone at all, not even himself.
This is a great novel and a joyful read, but where people got the idea that Sal is someone to admire or emulate, I really don’t know.
I am still pathetically working my way through my 2012 To Be Read Challenge, and this book is number 11. More soon…ish…I hope.