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On the Road by Jack Kerouac

April 28, 2011
by

Hey! This is the first time I’ve not recycled a review from my blog. Yay new reviews!

I am late to the party, having just read On the Road by Jack Kerouac. I wonder if it is my age (a really old 27) that caused me to be more irritated than enthralled by this book, or that my student loan payments force me to stay responsible. There’s no dropping everything and running away for this girl.

On the Road is a landmark American novel, as it helped define the “Beat generation” and explored this diverse country of ours. It is written in a palatable sort of stream-of-consciousness; it is much easier to follow than, say, Mrs. Dalloway. It has that “THIS IS HAPPENING NOW” vibe, which is remarkable given it’s fifty years old. Check this out: “As the cabby drove us up the infinitely dark Alameda Boulevard along which I had walked many and many a lost night the previous months of the summer, singing and moaning and eating the stars and dropping the juices of my heart drop by drop on the hot tar…” (222). Obviously, Keruoac did an amazing job writing the thing: why does it irritate me?

The back cover (Fifteenth printing 1971) reads “The book is ultimately a celebration of life itself…” I believe that to be true, if you are a selfish jerkwad. This novel chronicles the cross-country adventures of our narrator Sal Paradise, a writer, and his many friends. The primary influence on his life is Dean Moriarty, who falls into jerkwad territory. In the aughts we call guys like this “douchebag,” but that may be too soft a term for ol’ Dean. So, Kristina, what is so irritating about this?
Dean is based on real life Beat groupie Neal Cassaday. Jack writes=Sal writes. Neal clowns around=Dean clowns around.

I am not going to belittle the accomplishments of the Beats. That’s not why I am here. The Beats helped America get less prude and do away with stupid obscenity laws. They were a necessary movement for both literature and society as a whole. They inspired the hippies, man. Can you dig? Yes!

No, instead, I am going to say that I give this book three point five out of five stars because Dean Moriarty is such a jackass. It’s a damn shame he’s based on a real person; it reminds me that far too many people like this exist. Sure, Dean could be a sweet guy and care about his friends…but he is also a low-life who couldn’t support his brood of children by several baby-mamas. I’m sorry you had a tough life, Dean, but please, use a condom. Hedonism=yay! Not taking responsibility for things=boooo. Dean is Chaotic Evil.

Dean is a necessity to this book because he inspires so much of Sal’s action. He’s a deadbeat muse. Sal, on the other hand, seems pretty tame. It’s never his idea to steal cars or destroy things. But he goes along with it, because, hey, it’s fun. So how, exactly, are we celebrating life? By behaving like complete jackasses with utter disregard for others! YAY FUN CELEBRATE GOOD TIMES COME ON. Obviously I am embittered by this.

Aside from the characters’ moral shortcomings (which doesn’t make a book bad; it’s just hard to swallow when this book is sold as a “celebration of life”), this book is pretty great. Keruoac’s prose makes you feel there. It’s not just because they are based on real people, but because he finds those minute details that make a character feel real. Check out this description of the hyperkinetic Dean (114):

Furiously he hustled into the railroad station; we followed sheepishly. He bought cigarettes. He had become absolutely mad in his movements; he seemed to be doing everything at the same time. It was a shaking of the head, up and down, sideways; jerky, vigorous hands; quick walking, sitting, crossing the legs, uncrossing, getting up, rubbing the hands, rubbing his fly, hitching his pants, looking up and saying, “Am,” and sudden slitting of the eyes to see everywhere; and all the time he was grabbing me by the ribs and talking, talking.

I felt there: Colorado, Texas, Mexico, New York, et al. Keruoac does wonders for the reader. But is imagery enough? No, it’s not. Luckily, we get a lil’ bit of philosophizing in, too. At times this is just pretentious conversations dropping Schopenhauer‘s name, but at others, it gets good—sweeter, even.

In driving past indigenous Mexicans, Dean was bewildered by the simple lives they lead and their isolation from modernity (197):

Notice the beads of sweat on her brow,” Dean pointed out with a grimace of pain. “It’s not the kind of seat we have, it’s oily and it’s always there because it’s always hot the year round and she knows nothing of non-sweat, she was born with sweat and dies with sweat.” The sweat on her brow was heavy, sluggish; it didn’t run; it just stood there and gleamed like a fine olive oil. “What that must do to their souls! How different they must be in their private concerns and evaluations and wishes!” Dean drove on with with mouth hanging in awe, ten miles an hour, desirous to see every possible human being on the road.

So I guess I don’t hate Dean completely, given his hunger for new experiences and appreciation for the little things. Everyone should definitely read this book, but keep in mind that it’s not all romantic as we tend to think of the Beat generation. It’s often sad.

KK

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. The OverLady permalink
    April 28, 2011 9:45 pm

    Excellent review, as always, KK. It’s refreshing to read/hear someone whose opinion and brain I greatly respect review a book many people seem to revere as their wanderlust bible. This book is just as much a “celebration of life” as the christian bible. Sure, it’s beautifully written and addresses the lack of need for certain societal concepts; but with the distinct encouragement of doing whatever you want at any cost. (or no cost because you’ll Take Yours.)

    I’m probably opening a big can of worms, but it seems to be one of the stems of the pop “anarchist” movement. Not to say all anarchy is wrong, but a lot of people who identify themselves as anarchists really just want chaos and moral justification for their doings as opposed to the minority of self-labeled anarchists who want enough chaos to spark change and be able to return to small-community living and bartering- which benefits many. I guess it could also be likened to the difference between choosing cannibalism or rationing what “real’ food you have in a post-apocalyptic situation.

    I probably digress, but I think I see what you’re saying re: romantacism of this book… Follow its philosophy and Be Your Own Person by stepping on whomever or read it as a precautionary tale, still be your own person and lift a community.

    • May 4, 2011 12:45 am

      Have you read OTR? I wonder if you’d have the same opinion as me—or if I’m just too anal and orderly to “get it.” (According to my cousin I need to do some homework, after all.) I think you make a good point with the anarchy thing, though…People without government always brings to mind chaos: riots and raping. Tyranny without the fear-inspiring leader.

      • The OverLady permalink
        June 1, 2011 6:25 pm

        Admittedly, I have *not* read it still… but between your review and literally (yes, literally) about 2 dozen people I’ve talked about this book with, it feels to a degree like I have. Which is to say, I have a decent empirical study on my hands. 😉 Most fall into the category of J, religiously fawning over it and tend to possess the burning man/fuck-it-I-will-live-with-no-order-attitude on life; which seems to thematically match the mantra of OTR.

        I have come across 3 (including you) people who have read it and do not share that view [obsession]. They have similar thoughts on the book as a whole and think it’s quite good, one of the two definitely stating it really helped shape his young manhood, but still acknowledging that it is not a healthy way to live life. Those other two people are very much not anal and orderly, just not so idealistic they cannot see cause and effect. I highly suspect I would continue to have a similar opinion as you after reading it. (I have a book to lend you, we should make a trade soon!)

        Regarding the anarchy, it’s so true… most of the people who represent that movement are as belligerent as the tea partiers. But the “real” movement and the quieter sect of folks who hope to move towards that are the ones to observe and listen to. They are the ones building and fostering small community, hoping for enough societal break-down to essentially force more (or all) people to live more independently and rely on eachother instead of a faceless entity. It’s honestly pretty admirable.

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