My Rating: ★★★★
Method of Reading: Public library hardcover novel, 256 pages
Dates of Reading: August 13, 2013-August 17, 2013
Author: Jack Kerouac
Publication Year: 1955
Recommended to: Fans of Catcher in the Rye, hipsters... I will warn you that it is a dense book that demands careful consideration (I don't think I can do it true justice, especially reading it unguided). The experience actually reminded me a lot of watching The Perks of Being a Wallflower last fall, when I needed about 48 hours to really process it and even just decide whether or not I had liked it! I needed a LOT of time with this one.
"And the point was that Sam didn't have to go and look to know this" (40).
"'I just won't sleep,' I decided. There are so many other interesting things to do" (47).
"...they were very amazing maniacs" (50).
"They were like the man with the dungeon stone and the gloom, rising from the underground, the sordid hipsters of America, a new beat generation that I was slowly joining" (54).
"This is the story of America. Everybody's doing what they think they're supposed to do" (68).
"...mixing up our souls ever more and ever more till it would be terribly hard to say good-by" (91).
"My aunt once said the world would never find peace until men fell at their women's feet and asked for forgiveness" (122).
"...Lucille would never understand me because I like too many things and get all confused and hung-up running from one falling star to another till I drop" (125).
"But why think about that when all the golden land's ahead of you and all kinds of unforeseen events wait lurking to surprise you and make you glad you're alive to see?" (135).
"They didn't know that a bomb had come that could crack all our bridges and roads and reduce them to jumbles, and we would be as poor as they someday, and stretching out our hands in the same, same way" (298).
Movie: From 2012, one that looks really good although it didn't get the hottest reviews. I wonder how closely it follows the actual book though, because a lot of this could get dry and I feel like filmmakers would feel a strong need to drench this thing in meaning and impose a false framework onto it.
Wikipedia Link: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/On_the_Road
My View: As I started this book, I strongly felt that Kerouac's genius was generally overhyped. I have a reverence for writing in almost any form, but the book felt bland, lacking in style and devoid of creativity. I particularly found his over-use of the word "damn" empty and so omnipresent it reminded me of Holden Caulfield's "phony" tagline except without much meaning. Learning about how this book was written was very useful in helping me come to appreciate the style being used and I had to accept that this was not a book I could read alone. So during my reading, I had to simultaneously do a little Beat Generation research, especially about "Dean" and "Sal." Previously, I had never studied this era of authors and there were two passages in my research that stood out to me.
"Everywhere the Beat Generation seems occupied with the feverish production of answers—some of them frightening, some of them foolish—to a single question: how are we to live?... How to live seems much more crucial than why"
("On the Road." Wikipedia). (Quotation attributed to John Clellon Hughes.)
"Not content with the uniformity promoted by government and consumer culture, the Beats yearned for a deeper, more sensational experience"
("On the Road." Wikipedia).
I enjoy how these quotes characterize the movement and how well they apply to the Beat Gen excerpts I've read recently. One problem I have with how this generation and particularly Kerouac portray all of these "grand life truths" is how centered they are on America. I love America, but any universal truth has to be universal and Kerouac seems to apply his mantras and philosophies specifically to his country. For such intelligent individuals as he and his friends clearly were, this way of seeing the world seems to be limiting. I came to see, however, that Kerouac's self-imposed limits were not merely patriotic. He also has a habit of throwing out perfectly good information gained through a lifetime of experience because he doesn't find his own life "authentic" enough to trust. More on this in a moment.
The book took a while to get into (it seems that Kerouac found the journeys he was describing too grand and meaningful to distill into a cohesive storyline, so he just copied years of diary entries onto his famous scroll). But once I got past "Sal" observing one of Dean and Carlo's excessively honest nightly talks, the book started to pick up. It was if watching these two be honest about how they experience things, not just what they experience, allowed Sal to open up to readers in the same way, necessitating less dulling play-by-play and allowing a look at his inner experience, motivations, and reactions. However, when I turned a page and cracked open his mind... his mind infuriated me. I thought his apparent lack of direction and usefulness was just a front. Inside his brain however, it seems that he really was stumbling blindly with only a hazy and disjointed motivation to do anything. And here lies the annoying habit of discrediting personal experience to which I just referred. By getting to the basics of things, looking for the very root of the human experience, he ignored a lot of the truly important, big things that he already knew. Not only does this frustrate me as a reader today, it frustrated his mission way-back-when! He ignores the things he knows for the sake of education and it hurts his cause. A symptom of this is his refusal to acknowledge morality of any sort, except to discount it. He seems devoid of any "Catholic guilt," his Christian background rarely showing until Mexico brings it out in him a little. When he discusses the innocent young girls' ancient eyes there, comparing them to those of the Blessed Virgin, he likens his own eyes to Christ's, which I find very interesting. He does not want to acknowledge any morality that he has not proven to himself is valid, and yet he chooses himself to play the founder of a religion based on faith in his mental story?
Overall, Kerouac spends a lot of time and energy "looking beyond" the obvious, and never seeing the obvious itself. This is especially true in his hero-worship of Dean, whom he eventually calls a rat. The lack of responsibility "Sal and Dean" take for their lives and the unconcern they display for people they affect is torturous and it leads them to a life pursuing answers so eagerly, they never stop to learn. Perhaps, of course, these memoirs record two young men's trapped expressions of freedom. They have a car, sure--a real sign of maturity--but they have no money, gas, food, destinations, or aid to make something of that car... they don't even really have many people to rely on. Maybe it would help if they could show the people who are in their lives a little more respect or consideration, but that ship sailed early on. The boys' disturbing lack of direction makes them difficult to stick with, but someone might stick around if they were treated with common courtesy. (This lack of direction and integrity is most clearly seen in their unwillingness to flatly dislike/disapprove of much of anything... they simply hate whatever happens to be blocking their path at any given time.)
Despite his unconcern for the emotional, financial, and temporal resources of others, I must say that I appreciate Dean's intense interest in people. He loves studying them, interacting with them, comparing them. Yet even when he gives a young Mexican girl a wristwatch in apparent charity, it feels more like an experiment than an act of generosity or human affection. Kerouac frequently calls him an Angel or Prophet, but I don't feel either description is apt. Dean has the makings of a great and benevolent man but is too stuck in his own selfish "metaworld" to use his good qualities for anyone else's aid, the exact opposite of what Kerouac seems to find in him for much of the book. Dean certainly brings something to the table, but he never shares it around. Perhaps this has something to do with a fear of growing up. Every time that something meaningful is discovered in either young man's life, be it a skill, passion, calling, friendship, creed, or goal, they discount it by saying that their information was incomplete, assumed, "inauthentic," or wrongly given. They go so far as to abandon the beliefs and basic social mores and conventions they were raised on, searching for proof of the definite, in order to claim insufficient assurance that they should move forward and grow up and continue on with life in any real direction. They discount anything that was learned at any "unenlightened" time (an indefinite, ever-growing period of youth that can conveniently expand to swallow anything which might guide the immature men to take action) so they can never be told they have a "complete" enough foundation of knowledge to take action in their own lives.
One easily sees how these vicious cycles can grow enormously and I think Dean and Sal allow them to, unwisely, abnormally, and unhealthily. They have rather common social problems as well, though. One social habit these boys have that of course annoys me to no end is their constant objectification of women. The only strong female character introduced with minimal patronization, upon whom the characters rely without grudge and treat with respect and long-term love/responsibility is Sal's aunt. Every other girl introduced is sickly used. For the most part, "Sal" ignores women-as-people entirely and gives only fleeting, though intense concern to women-as-bodies/accessories. The book starts off with mention of his divorce, an event which allows him to meet Dean in the first place... interestingly, the book also ends with Dean happily leaving Sal with a new girl (who the real "Dean" would struggle with the rest of his life). I stumbled on an article at one point about On the Road painting women as a detriment to men's maturity, and perhaps this shift in perspective from the first to the last line would support this theory. More likely, I think, "Dean" was trying to experience life too intensely by engaging in extreme sexual behavior and Sal came to assume that this was the norm. They did not necessarily view women as roadblocks in their exploits because the women they use mean so incredibly little to them most of the time. They don't spend enough time thinking about the individual women themselves to justify saying that they were problems to overcome. If anything, they have a problem finding enough women.
In other news, I did like many things about the style of this book. One of my favorite points is when Kerouac writes, "...the great dry West was accomplished and done" (236). I feel this scene more than I see it, which is lovely. The mix of poetic, prosaic, and indeterminate styles surrounding this bit are really interesting as well. Sometimes, the style is very Catcher; other times, it feels almost Heart of Darkness. There are some times, like page 181, where he does very fun and random stylistic things (so much random stylistic stuff that I don't doubt he wrote this all in one sitting) and I wish I could read entire books in the styles he is slipping through. I also particularly enjoy his many delightful similes (i.e. "It was as hot as the inside of a baker's oven on a June night in New Orleans" .). In all, the way his style mimics and wraps into the story, and the way that the story itself shapes and molds the ever-changing style that is used in the diary-like writing and the signature Kerouac style eventually draped over it when the book was transcribed, is a really neat interplay that helps you enjoy both the plot and the writer more.
- On the Road cover. Digital image. Voices of East Anglia. Newmarket Website Design, n.d. Web. 17 Aug. 2013.
- "On the Road (film)." Wikipedia. WikiMedia, Inc., n.d. Web. 17 Aug. 2013.
- "On the Road." Good Reads. Goodreads, Inc., n.d. Web. 17 Aug. 2013.
- "On the Road." Wikipedia. WikiMedia, Inc. n.d. Web. 17 Aug. 2013.
- Shea, Andrea. "Jack Kerouac's Famous Scroll, 'On the Road' Again." NPR. N.p., 5 July 2007. Web. 5 Sept. 2013.