Book Review: On the Road, by Jack Kerouac

On the Road: 50th Anniversary Edition

On the Road, by Jack Kerouac, is one of the most famous and most misunderstood books in the world. From it came the term “beat generation,” and a lot of people think it gave rise to the beatniks and hippies. Maybe it did, but the interpretation of it that would do so was wrong.

Kerouac was on the road for about seven years, and claims to have banged out On the Road in about three weeks in 1951, typed on one continuous strip of paper created by
taping rolls of teletype paper together, resulting in a scroll. The scroll was bought in 2001 by Jim Irsay, owner of the Colts.

It is an intense book that describes Kerouac’s adventures traveling between New York and California several times in the late 40’s, with a little side trip to Mexico in 1950. He (who is Sal Paradise in the book) and his friend Neal Cassady (Dean Moriarty in the book), speed, drink, steal, whore, and toke their way across America. I believe the book is merely a memoir of his travels, as he used the real names of the characters in the manuscript, as though he were reciting what they really said and did. Some people have referred to this as literary non-fiction. Call it what you will, it is a compelling book.

The book is written in a very loose style that is likened to jazz, and there are many references and descriptions of jazz in the book that made even your humble servant, who despises jazz, to give it a listen. (I still don’t like it). I found the language of the book to be engrossing, and the story fascinating, to the extent that there is a story, as the book really has no central plot, but amounts to a collections of anecdotes.

What is the book really about? It is about getting out and experiencing the world. It was not about any “beat” generation, although he used the word “beat” frequently, which I took to mean the same thing it meant to me when I was a kid—something beat is something old and worn out, or broken, or crappy—something like that. But to turn the word into a description for a whole generation is a perversion of the book’s meaning.

The reason for starting the trip is that the protagonist is a young man trying to be a writer who decides he needs more experience. As young men are given to doing when they travel, Sal and his buddies party. And they partied hard, hard, hard. I drink more than my fair share of booze, and there were times when I was thinking that he should stop, and maybe not drive the car. But that is the old man in me, as I have driven a car under circumstances that it was all I could do to keep the thing on the road. They also smoked a lot of dope, which they refer to as “tea.”

So, what is it about this book that would attract a literary man? Once again, it is written by a man, about a man, from the perspective of a man. There is some sex, but not graphic, and there is only a tangential description of relationships. It’s about men, albeit young men, having fun and experiencing life, i.e., drinking, taking drugs, screwing, and generally raising hell. They can’t go on like this for ever, but they can for a while.

That is not enough, though, for the Literary Man. The writing must be good. No, the writing must be great. You could have all the wonderful story in the world, but if the writing sucks, the book sucks. Here, the writing is brilliant, energetic and powerful. Here is an example—when told that Dean was on his way to Denver, Sal imagined him driving:

“Suddenly I had an image of Dean, a burning shuddering frightful Angel, palpitating toward me across the road, approaching like a cloud, with enormous speed, pursuing me like the Shrouded Traveller on the plain, bearing down on me. I saw his huge face over the plains with the mad, bony purpose and the gleaming eyes; I saw his wings; I saw his old jalopy chariot with thousands of sparking flames shooting out from it; . . .”

He could have written: “I could imagine him driving a hundred miles an hour over the road in his old car.” This is what writing is about. Don’t just say “I saw him coming,” but say “I saw him roaring toward me like the Angel of frickin’ Death coming to take me away on the tail of a comet.”

On the Road is a must read for The Literary Man.


Purchase On the Road from Amazon