Im always amazed by how many high school and college students have read On the Road by Jack Kerouac. The rambling, stream-of-consciousness book celebrates its 50th anniversary this September.
Of course, these young people tend to be those who enjoyed studying literature in school. But still, it seems pretty cool that On the Road still has some legs 50 years after it was written.
I read On the Road three times at a similar age, from 17 to 19, and couldnt make a lick of sense of it. Its Americas version of James Joyces Ulysses, which is a completely unreadable book about a single days events in Dublin.
On the Road is much the same. Its basically an autobiography of Jack Kerouacs seven years of bumming around America in the 1940s in search of a new hip way of life, inspired by poetry, jazz, drugs, casual sex, and living rough on the streets.
Give it credit, the book provided a sequel to the ending of Huckleberry Finn, with its impulse to head west into the great unknown of Americas underground. It spurred a generation of young Americans to take up the travel lifestyle. God knows how many copies of On the Road are floating around Afghanistan today, left there 40 years ago by idealistic young American backpackers following the Hippie Trail to India.
Practically everyone has heard of On the Road, yet I imagine that few have had the fortitude to wade through its dense, ricochetting prose, which was meant to copy the be-bop rhythms of jazz. So heres the gist of it -- the Cliff Sticky Notes version, if you will.
The books narrator is Sal Paradise (a stand-in for Kerouac), who worships Dean Moriarty. Dean is the real-life Neal Cassady, whose sex & drugs exploits with Ken Keseys Merry Pranksters and the hippies were further chronicled in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe. Another character is Carlo Marx, a pseudonym for the poet Allen Ginsberg. Famous beatniks, writers and poets are sprinkled throughout the book under other guises.
Sal Paradise worships Dean Moriarty because this son of a wino and “sideburned hero of the snowy West“ is a modern-day outlaw, living outside the square world. Dean set a Denver record for stealing cars, gunning for girls coming out of high school in the afternoon, driving them out to the mountains, making them, and coming back to sleep in any available hotel bathtub in town, Kerouac writes.
Dean spends most of the book trying to nail high school girls as he rambles around the country, stealing cars and surviving on petty theft and crappy day jobs. He speaks a form of hipstereze along the lines of Dig it, daddy-o, that seems corny today.
He and Sal bounce from one sordid situation to another, trying to break free of the uptight side of America while exploring the hipster underground occupied by cool spades, jazz musicians and Mexicans. They are the prototypical beatniks, and out of their writings and experience comes the Beat Generation, which in turn, played midwife to the Swinging Sixties.
Its an odd book, because although he was married a couple of times, Kerouac and his pals were notoriously bisexual, or gay in Ginsbergs case. Yet much of the book is about their burning lust for making chicks. Yet, the unspoken subtext of the book is that Sal is in love with Dean. The result is a psychosexual circus that gives On the Road much of its power.
The book also purports to celebrate the nonstop good times of life on the road, but ultimately, it‘s a sad, unhappy book with a theme of disillusionment. Like Dorothy, Sal learns that there‘s “no place like home.“
After a few years of rambling, Sal starts to sour on the life of a bum and the fact that hes always letting people down, including the women unlucky enough to live with him. After the book reaches a crescendo with a trip to Mexico City, Sal is deserted by Dean in Mexico. Dean abandons him, even though Sal is sick with dysentery, fever and hallucinations. When I got better I realized what a rat he was, Sal reflects.
The book peters out from there. A year later, Dean rides the rails from San Francisco to New York to make up with Sal. But Sal has a Duke Ellington concert to go to and no time for his old friend -- the bloom is off the rose. Dean simply turns around and heads back out West into the great unknown. The book ends with Sal sitting on an East River pier, looking at the sunset and moping about his old pal, Dean. All thats missing is a rose to sniff.
According to legend, On the Road was written in three weeks of nonstop typing on a single roll of paper. But, as noted in an article on Wikipedia, much of the novel was written in advance on notepads during Kerouacs travels. He also spent years of rewriting and self-censoring to keep his nervous publishers happy.
Kerouac claimed that the true ending of On the Road was eaten by his cocker spaniel. He also had to tone down the language and use fake names. This year, Viking Press plans to publish Kerouacs original uncensored version of On the Road. The book is also being made into a movie.
Bitter irony: Kerouac died in Orlando, Florida in 1969 -- a place that was soon to become one of the most uphip towns in America. He was 46 years old.
Are you going to read the uncensored version of On the Road when it comes out? Me neither. But the movie, that should be a trip.