This is my first week back to work after my two and a half month long summer vacation. I spent a majority of those months in the car, visiting friends and having local adventures, which is probably why I gravitated to this book for my next voyage into the book list.
On the Road is a pivotal book from the Beat Generation. There is an apocryphal story of Jack Kerouac’s coffee-and-amphetamine fueled conception of the book, in which he taped together several typewriter scrolls in order to write without the pesky interruption of having to stop to reload. The original scroll manuscript has gone on a tour of college libraries throughout the United States and Europe and was published as On the Road: The Original Scroll in 2007. The stream of consciousness style as employed by Kerouac was used to showcase his semi-autobiographical novel about the adventures that he and his friend, Neal Cassady, had on the road from 1947-1950.
The names of Kerouac’s characters have been analyzed by literary scholars since the book’s publication in 1957. Kerouac based the novel on actual events and subsequently had to change the names of his friends who appeared as characters.
The novel begins with Sal Paradise (Kerouac) introducing the concept of Dean Moriarty (Cassady). Sal was obsessed with the idea of the human condition, which included his friends, the jazz scene, the United States outside of New York, and most importantly, women.
They danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because 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 that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”
Dean arrives in New York and changes everything for Sal. When Dean first arrived, he met Carlo Marx (Allen Ginsberg), and they bond together and feed Sal’s fascination with eclectic and unique personalities.
In July of 1947, Sal decides that it is time for him to venture to the West Coast, and he hits the road with fifty dollars in his pocket. He travels to Chicago, San Fransisco, and Los Angeles, meeting women and different eccentric personalities along the way. Dean spends some time in prison for stealing cars, which cements his transition into an epic hero in Sal’s eyes.
“Sal, we gotta go and never stop going till we get there.”
“Where we going, man?”
“I don’t know but we gotta go.”
As their sojourn around the country continues, Sal becomes more and more disillusioned with what he finds on the road. The people that he encounters are from the more poverty-stricken end of the spectrum, including elderly African-American men and Mexican prostitutes. The sense of Sal and Dean’s heroism begins to falter as their lives and experiences turns into a series of failures.
Sal’s final attempt at finding a solution from the road leads him to Mexico City with Dean; they embark on a marijuana-fueled adventure through bordellos with mambo music and prostitutes. But while in Mexico, Sal develops dysentery and becomes feverish and hallucinates. Dean leaves Sal while he’s ill, which gives Sal the realization that Dean is more pathetic than he let on, and that the attributes that Sal originally admired in him were actually symptoms of his insecurity and existential crises:
When I got better I realized what a rat he was, but then I had to understand the impossible complexity of his life, how he had to leave me there, sick, to get on with his wives and woes.
Sal returns home and ends the novel sitting on a pier facing west, reflecting on his friendship and adventures.
So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, and all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars’ll be out, and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear? the evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all the rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.
I love this book. I first read it when I was fresh out of high school and had a lot of grand notions of what my life was going to be and I was convinced that my best friend and I would be Kerouac and Cassady but with less drugs. The stream-of-consciousness style helps to convey the frenetic energy and the passion with which the characters, both fictional and their live counterparts, lived their lives. Reading On the Road or poetry from Ginsberg and Ferlinghetti makes me feel cooler than I actually am, which is what the Beat Generation authors were all about — experiencing their lives through means that allows them to become more than they are. The movement got its name from the religious theory of beatification as well as the slang term of being beaten down. The Beat Generation was beaten down, but they were looking up.