Monday, July 18, 2011

*On the Road, by Jack Kerouac

Penguin Books
307 pp.

" saith Ecclesiastes, "It is your portion under the sun."

And that "portion" is to be seized (as in "carpe diem") ; the how and why of it all drives this story.  Narrated by Kerouac's alter ego -- writer Sal Paradise, who comes to realize that: "life is holy and every moment is precious,"   On the Road is a novel that chronicles Sal's journeys across America in the last years of the 1940s, beginning in 1947 when "bop was somewhere between its Charlie Parker Ornithology period and another period that began with Miles Davis."   It's sort of like a travel diary on steroids, a narrative of a what back then would have amounted to a limited sort of anarchy that takes place in a time that is well in the past, and in an America that no longer exists.  It's the story of two friends, Sal and Dean (who is in real life Neal Cassady, friend to such beat-generation icons as Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, etc. etc.)  who live for the now, always looking for "It" ... who wait for some prophet to come along and deliver the Word -- which ultimately turns out to be  "Wow!"

  To "know time " was the main goal of these journeys -- and to do this, they had to cram so much of life into each possible second of living. They travelled through the backroads of the country either in cars going between 90 and 110 mph, hitchhiking, or traveling from bus station to bus station; they often found themselves or otherwise down at heel, having to take on crap jobs to make enough to eat, but none of that mattered as long as they stayed open to every possibility life had to offer.  If that included women, beer, parties, pot and sex, it also implied freedom and independence, the stuff that sometimes youthful dreams are made of -- the ever-present dream of the beckoning open road with no restraint, no purpose -- just the journey and the people they meet along the way.  Whether it be a jazz musician blowing the almighty Bop in LA or New York or over the high-powered radio waves that carried their frenetic sounds through the dark desert nights or in all-night, hyped-up jazz jam sessions; or a lonely old man known as the "Ghost of the Susquehanna, continually wandering through the wilderness of Eastern America; individuals hitching across the country; cowboys from Montana; Mexicans in California's Central Valley who picked grapes and lived in camps, toiling in the hot sun during the day and  playing music into the lateness of the night;  the black-sooted hoboes who rode the rails or wandered nomadically across the country; or even the prostitutes in a certain Mexican whorehouse --  to Sal and Dean, these were the people who seemed to really live life to its fullest -- the people they respected most. As Sal notes: "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 who 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 "Awwww!"

For some readers, On the Road is the ultimate non-conformist manifesto that signified the heart of the beat generation, gave rise to the hippie movement, or caused people to hit the road in search of freedom.  For me it's a great slice of Americana that relates the dreams, life, and the rebellious spirit  of  a group of people just after World War II -- a period piece about living the American dream on one's own terms -- not those defined by the generation before -- and about friendship that should definitely be read and understood in the context of its times.

Don't read the book with the expectation of finding a "great revelation" at the end of it all -- there is none. I think this is one of those  novels where you either get something out of it or you don't.  People who are looking to get some kind of message from this novel may be disappointed, as will people who are looking for writing with a specific plot behind it all, or for redeemable characters who act in accordance to our 21st-century sensibilities.  The prose is lively, at times going off into a form of stream-of-consciousness writing and then changing into a more manic pace and traveling back again to a normal tone. Somewhere I read that Kerouac borrowed some of the crazy energy and rhythm from bop jazz and inserted it directly into his work; as a maniac for bop and for Charlie Parker, I almost believe it. The original version of this novel had real-life names in it -- so I may go back someday and read it.

I personally think it's a good  book, not great (and I must confess to liking Kerouac's Dharma Bums a lot more) and it is a very intelligent read, one that does take a bit of consideration and reader involvement.  I wasn't around during the beat or later hippie generation, but do have an affinity with the idea not being trendy or living based on others' expectations, doing my own thing and finding my own personal sense of freedom in life, so there's something about this book that appeals to me. It's also quite entertaining, and I'm a huge fan of backroad  car trips and the unusual and quirky people and things in life, so it speaks to me on several levels.  Comments about this novel range from "shallow" to "a work of genius," so it's basically like any other novel out there where each reader takes away something uniquely his or her own.  But it's definitely not for everyone.

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