The original scroll manuscript of ‘On the Road’. Image: theguardian.com
I approached this text with an almost reverential awe, but have to say that in all, I didn’t find it as good as I had expected it to be. This was because the style was not quite as experimental and radical as I had imagined it to be, with the ‘Spontaneous Prose’ style not as free and ‘spontaneous’ as it was built up to be when I was researching Kerouac and the book prior to reading it. I expected it to be slightly more fragmentary and random, rather than simply free-flowing, and to not follow a narrative structure as closely as it does. That isn’t to say that the book does not come across as relaxed and almost conversational, though, because it does, and this is a source of a great deal of the book’s charm for me.
Within the novel, there are some passages of great lyrical beauty. For example, I particularly liked this section from Part 2 Chapter 10:
And just for a moment I had reached the point of ecstasy that I always wanted to reach, which was the complete step across chronological time into timeless shadows, and wonderment in the bleakness of the mortal realm, and the sensation of death kicking at my heels to move on, with a phantom dogging its own heels, and myself hurrying to a plank where all the angels dove off and flew into the holy void of uncreated emptiness, the potent and inconceivable radiancies shining in bright Mind Essence, innumerable lotus-lands falling open in the magic mothswarm of heaven. I could hear an indescribable seething roar which wasn’t in my ear but everywhere and had nothing to do with sounds. I realized that I had died and been reborn numberless times but just didn’t remember especially because the transitions from life to death and back to life are so ghostly easy, a magical action for naught, like falling asleep and waking up again a million times, the utter casualness and deep ignorance of it. I realized it was only because of the stability of the intrinsic Mind that these ripples of birth and death took place, like the action of wind on a sheet of pure, serene, mirror-like water. I felt sweet, swinging bliss, like a big shot of heroin in the mainline vein; like a gulp of wine lat in the afternoon and it makes you shudder; my feet tingled. I thought I was going to die the very next moment. But I didn’t die, and walked our miles and picked up ten long butts and took them back to Marylou’s hotel room and poured their tobacco in my old pipe and lit it up. I was too young to know what had happened. In the window I smelled all the food of San Francisco. There were seafood places out there where the uns were hot, and the baskets were good enough to eat too; were the menus themselves were soft with foody esculence as though dipped in hot broths and roasted dry and good enough to eat too. Just show me the bluefish spangle on a seafood menu and I’d eat it; let me smell the drawn butter and lobster claws. There were places where they specialized in thick red roast beef au jus, or roast chicken basted in wine. There were places where hamburgs sizzled on grills and the coffee was only a nickel. And oh, that pan-fried chow mein flavored air that blew into my room from Chinatown, vying with the spaghetti sauces of North Beach, the soft-shell crab of Fisherman’s Wharf – nay, the ribs of Fillmore turning on spits! Throw in the Market Street chili beans, redhot, and french-fried potatoes of the Embarcadero wino night, and steamed clams from Sausalito across the bay, and that’s my ah-dream of San Francisco. Add fog, hunger-making raw fog, and the throb of neons in the soft night, the clack of high-heeled beauties, white doves in a Chinese grocery window…
I adored the theme and the sentiments that Kerouac presented, and I can see why Bob Dylan is quoted on the back cover of the Penguin Modern Classics edition as saying that ‘It changed my life like it changed everyone else’s’, as the book provides a glimpse into a life that- whilst still being concerned with the mundanity and troubles of everyday existence- is primarily focussed upon travel and the search for happiness through the nomadic lifestyle of the great American Roadtripper. If you overlook the lack of money and the problems that Sal and Dean face, then the ability to set out into the wide expanses of raw country and endless desert is an intoxicating idea and a treasure chest of beauty and possibilities. However, for most of us such a dream would always stay just that- a dream- and the pressures and stresses of the 21st century make the idea of such a lifestyle in the present all the more remote and improbable.
I also enjoyed the literary allusions in the text, which I feel add much to the theme and the intent of the book, even if many of the interpretations may have not been intended. On the Road is a wonderful example- as are most of Kerouac’s novels- of a roman à clef, being a fictionalised account of the travels that Kerouac made with his friend Neal Cassady across America, with the names of Kerouac, Cassady and their other friends being changed for legal reasons prior to publication. For example, the author becomes Sal Paradise, and Cassady becomes Dean Moriarty, with the writer William S. Burroughs appearing as Old Bull Lee. Therefore, the relationship between Sal and Dean is rooted in reality, but I cannot avoid the similarity between their relationship and that of Nick Carraway and Jay Gatsby in Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. Both Dean and Jay are characters whom seem to be quite shallow and empty individuals with little purpose in life and yet have a profound impact on the narrator of their respective stories, with Nick and Sal both idolising their friends and seeing them as almost incorruptible men who stand for all that is good in the world, despite their evident failings. To be honest, I find Dean an easy character to dislike, and was very unimpressed with the image of him that is created for the reader, as he seems to be a complete and utter arse. That is purely my opinion, though, based on the way that Dean is shown to breeze through life leaving woman after woman behind to look after his ever-expanding count of children, and how very little about him seems to be honest or convincing- he seems insincere through his hyperbolic sincerity. However, he does work well to represent the pointlessness and futility of many people’s lives in the US in the 1950s, and can be seem perhaps as a metaphor for the emptiness and directionless nature of the post-war years.
I am interested to read more Kerouac to learn more of his style and about him, and feel that my experience of On the Road is somewhat incomplete if I don’t read the Original Scroll edition. I’m not going to hunt this out yet, but will certainly make an effort to get hold of a copy when i next feel like reading this book. Also, this is definitely a book that I do hope to read again, as there is so much in the text that I feel I must have missed things. Highly recommended, but it may change your outlook on your own life!