Habitual Mood

On the Road (Jack Kerouac)

This post is part of Commonplace Classics, wherein I read the books we all know and sometimes love.


Aside from William Burroughs, I never had much interest in the Beats, which is not to say that my youthful reading habits didn't include various other writers stereotypically beloved by adolescents and Johnny Depp. But I never read Kerouac and it seemed I never would; I mean, if you don't read this stuff when you're twenty, you're never going to read it are you? I included On the Road on my reading list for this project with some trepidation, not because I was worried I would hate it - that would make for good copy - but because I feared its status as a cultural artefact would obscure its qualities (or lack thereof) as a novel. The Beats cast a huge shadow over post-WW2 pop culture, and On the Road is probably one of the key books of the period. It's not exactly a la mode, however, and there is a common and not entirely unmerited perception that the whole Beat scene is hopelessly dated, despite its enduring appeal to an ever-renewing cohort of the young and sweaty. In other words, I was worried that writing about On the Road would become a whole thing, and nobody wants that.

I shall forebear to rehash the entirety of late-20th century pop culture and the present discourse around it and stick to my impressions of coming to On the Road in the year 2024, starting with the fact that - to my surprise - I mostly enjoyed it. Cult novels tend to elicit extreme responses, but in this instance I'm one of those dirty centrists people like to yell at on social media. Reading On the Road wasn't a revelatory, life-changing experience, but neither did I dislike it.

Kerouac gets off to a flying start, introducing a flurry of ill-defined characters1 rushing around trying to get to Denver for some reason. (No slight against Denver, which I'm sure is a fine city, but it doesn't strike me as the most romantic of America's conurbations.) The narrator - Kerouac's alter ego Sal Paradiso - at least has a reason for decamping New York City for Denver, as he's heading west with the vague intention of trying his hand at screenwriting.

Thus begins a succession of road trips, as Sal spends the latter half of the 1940s criss-crossing the continental United States, usually in the company of lunatic, lecherous, kleptomaniac Dean Moriarty, a whirlwind in human form. Dean is the Don Quixote, the Baron Munchausen, the "mad Ahab" of the novel. Sprinkle some Charles Manson in there too. Dean's wild! He speaks as quickly and erratically as he drives. He boozes and steals and womanises with abandon. He's impulsive and restless, perpetually on the move, seeking the next thing - doesn't matter what it is, as long as it's something other than what's in front of him.

Puppyish Sal is "always ready to follow Dean" but Dean only has eyes for himself. Their relationship is central to the book, but it is difficult to know what to make of it. Sal occasionally hints at feeling hurt by Dean's self-centredness, but there is never a rupture, never even a serious disagreement. It's interesting that Kerouac is this icon of poetic individualism when his most famous book is in large part a portrait of himself in thrall to another.

I deliberately didn't look up how closely On the Road hews to real life, but it is of course well known as a roman à clef. Dean Moriarty is based on Kerouac's buddy Neal Cassady; Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and sundry lesser lights make appearances under pseudonyms. Kerouac is good at bringing characters to life in a handful of lines, which is as much as most of his characters get. He also has an eye for absurdity, and while he's not exactly a funny writer, there are moments where the sheer madcap exuberance becomes comical in an almost Pynchonian way. Kerouac doesn't have Pynchon's way with a sentence, but his prose has its charming moments.

And yes, On the Road is quite dated with its "hey daddio" slang and resolutely straight, white, masculine worldview2. Women are strictly marginal, and Sal's attitude towards Black and Latino people, while not actively racist - and perhaps even progressive for the time in its (mostly) non-judgmental depiction of a multi-racial, multicultural milieu - is often patronising. It is literally dated, too, in that the youth culture it describes feels simultaneously familiar and strange. For all its influence on 60s pop culture and beyond, On the Road is very much a novel of the post-war, pre-rock 'n' roll period - and, to me, more interesting for that.

There's a moment in any bender when the momentum slows, and you shift from headlong enjoyment to weary inertia; your companions in obliteration, hitherto pleasant and convivial, begin to grate. Appropriately, this is the trajectory I experienced in reading On the Road. My copy runs to 281pp, which was about 81pp too long for mine. Dean gets crazier, the religious motifs proliferate, the quasi-philosophical bullshit cranks up a few notches. There is an unfortunate attempt to describe in prose the sound of a bebop combo. By the time Sal and Dean hitch up for their final road trip towards an absurdly romanticised vision of Mexico, I was ready for them to wrap their car around a tree.

I don't know what I would have made of On the Road if I'd read it as a young 'un. Maybe I'd have adopted Dean Moriarty as my role model, and wound up dead in a ditch in Denver, another casualty of death by alliteration. Reading it as a middle-aged person, I had to remind myself that Kerouac's characters are young. Stupid, callous, impulsive, caring, wanting, craving - all of this and more, frighteningly intense as only the young can be. For all the book's flaws and datedness, it contains moments that capture and convey this intensity in its many shades: "the raggedy madness and riot of our actual lives... the hell of it, the senseless nightmare road."


Next week/whenever on Commonplace Classics, I'll be tackling a writer many critics see as Jack Kerouac's true literary heir: Anita Brookner, with her 1984 novel Hotel du Lac, a freewheeling, profane and jazzy riff on, uh, repressed middle-class English people on holiday in Switzerland.

  1. A Flurry of Ill-Defined Characters was Kerouac's next book.

  2. Nobody actually says "daddio", but you know they're all thinking it.

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