01 January 2007

On the Road

I've had this on my bookshelf for so long I don't even remember when I got it or if it's even actually mine and not one I snagged from a friend. I've been meaning to read it forever but other things kept coming up. I brought it along on safari because it seemed like the right sort of book for that. It wasn't. That's not to say it was the wrong book, but Facing the Congo would have been much better for safari.

I have one important comment up front: reading this book is like taking a dose of Benzedrine. You don't need any uppers for at least the next half hour after you're done reading. They say Kerouac wrote the thing in three weeks (to which some eminence, Tom Wolfe I think, said, "That's not writing, that's typing.") and that manic energy flows off the page and directly into your brainstem as you read. I even talked faster after I'd read a few pages. People remarked on it. This may not happen to you but be forewarned.

The book is divided up into five parts. The fifth is just a few pages of summary. The fourth is about a trip to Mexico. The first three are… well, frankly, they're all the same. And that really bogged me down. Took me three weeks to get through part three (didn't finish the book until I was home for Christmas, and by then it felt like work).

I don't know why this bothered me so much. I really expected to like this book; people who've read it and who know me, said I'd really like it. And the truth is I absolutely loved part one. Loved it. I felt like I could read it three more times and it would be just as great… and then I did. The rest of the book was basically part one again, with minor changes in setting and tertiary characters.

For such a slim novel to seem so repetitive, so devoid of new material, seems odd, but the plot is as thin as an old dress sock: a couple guys get on the road and beat around the country bumming rides and money and working odd jobs. Towards the end I was starting to think Kerouac wrote it in three weeks because his memory was hazy and he just kept writing the same thing over and over.

But that's not fair, because it's not the same thing over and over. It's incredibly similar things, broken up by some really awesome description. And that's, ultimately, what has to carry you through the later chapters. In part one I was thrilled by the newness of the concept, awed by the vitality of Kerouac's words and sentences, and caught up in the excitement of the characters—the characters' own excitement about America, about going out and seeing it, really experiencing it, their absolute joy of and love for this country and its freedoms.

In part two I was still excited about reading the book, but I realized that the characters were not different than they had been in part one. Dean, I'm sorry to say, is a jackass. Sal comes across as a little dimwitted, although I don't think that's really the case. I think really he's just along for the ride, for whatever the ride may be. That's the point, after all, the point of the book—life is about the experience, about going out and seeing and doing and trying and learning and failing and living. This was a reaction to the notion that life is a certain specific thing, that you are supposed to live a certain way, do certain things. Nah. That's not life. This is life, hitchhiking across the country, working at different jobs, scrumming for your dinner, trying to figure out how to get by on wits alone and still have enough left over to go out, to experience what's out there.

I had a very strong connection to Sal Paradise throughout the book. Sal is the somewhat older, somewhat wiser guy (only somewhat), and he doesn't always initiate the travels so much as he has a yen to do them but needs someone to provide him with a destination or an excuse. Dean Moriarty does both, but as I said he's a jackass. Far be it from me to criticize someone else's lifestyle (except for all those times when I do), but you can't have three wives and five kids and not be able to support a one of them. There's a line somewhere between going out and experiencing all the weirdness life has to offer, and being an irresponsible shitheel. Both are equally fun but only one is remotely honorable.

The other characters apart from Sal and Dean are sketches. We spend some time with them, but what separates them? One has a wife he leaves. One lives in New Orleans and does a lot of drugs. One lives in San Francisco and Sal manages to piss him off but good. But really, what's different about them, one from the next? What do they matter? I'm not sure. They're pretty much the same people from one scene to the next, one voyage to the next, and at the end I'm not real sure they'd changed much. But they were real people, and Sal and Dean really went out there and really met them and hung with them and experienced them, really dug them, grooved with them, whatever sort of beat phrase you want to do. That's what it's all about, is getting out and really digging a guy, you know?

All well and good, but by book three I was just damn tired of the whole thing. There was no change, no real difference in the characters, nothing new. The point—get out and see what's out there, you know, hit the road--was already made, the beast was cooked, the horse was beat. Man, that was a beat horse…

At least in the fourth act we got to go to Mexico, and it felt sort of new again, but only sort of, and Dean was still a jackass. I was tired by then. I was beat. Beat, man. Beat.

But throughout the book there was description, the kind of description that wraps itself around your brain stem and beats itself into you and makes your eyes water and your hair burn and your teeth rattle around in your mouth from the sheer presence of it, the very nearness and certainty and clarity. Awesome stuff. Early on you notice the place descriptions, towns and cities and houses and farms and the road, just the road itself. Later on the descriptions are of people and what they're doing, of jazz music and jazz musicians. Even in the depths of part three when I was sick of the whole damn thing there would come along this amazing, fascinating description of these jazzmen and their tunes. I'd put in some passages but man it doesn't work unless you've already been reading for five minutes and you've got the cadences and the spirit and the feel, man, just the whole beat language and rhythm, rhythms like the jazz that so exulted Sal and Dean, and Jack and Neal in real life. It's amazing.

Sorta sounds like I really dug the book, you know? Only I didn't. Except when I did. It was like that.

But I gotta tell you this, man. I don't get it, you know what I mean? Here was this great piece of American literature, and it was cool, and it was beat, and I liked parts of it, and I just don't feel like I really got it. Why? Why was it so great? As a chronicle? As philosophy? As the new American writing par exemplance? I don't know. Was this supposed to change my life? Affirm it? Transport to a land of ecstasy? Or just, you know, was it just supposed to be a good read? I have to admit it came closer to some of the former than it did the latter.

Have you read On the Road? What did you think?

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