On the Road
“What is that feeling when you're driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? - it's the too-huge world vaulting us, and it's good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies.”
As ever, On the Road is one book among many others that I quickly devoured during my late adolescence, as though I was frantically running out of time to read everything ever written... and inevitably failed to absorb properly. I was so desperate to expose myself to all the great literature I'd never known of that I merely received a mushed imprint of the book in general, rather than understanding (to an extent) what it was I'd just spent my time on. I guess I like to think of it as an early preview, leaving the nagging feeling that I'd have to get around to reading it again some day. Almost ten years later (my catchphrase by now) that day finally came, thanks to me finding a new copy of the book designed to coincide with the 2012 film adaptation from director Walter Salles- I haven't seen it, but it's on the mental list to watch now.
Back to 2014, and, as is habitual now, before I began reading On the Road I took a quick look at its page on Goodreads. By this point I've learned that Goodreads is not to be taken too seriously as a source of reliable review scores, since everything generally just ends up with a score between 3.8 and 4.0 as people quickly rank their favourites. Nevertheless, in the case of On the Road I was genuinely surprised at how many featured reviews gave the book two stars or less and slated it for being pointless and rambling. Obviously Jack Kerouac is known now as the voice of the beat generation, and therefore a pioneer in a particular style of prose much in the fashion of later favourites such as Charles Bukowski and Hunter S. Thompson- whose best work is more or less revered amongst almost every modern review I've seen. Is Kerouac's style just not as palatable as it is creative? Or have modern consumers of fiction been conditioned to expect clearer, more direct plotting with rounded character arcs to the expense of a more free-flowing anarchic storytelling?
First of all, this time I liked On the Road a great deal more than before. It is a fantastic, iconic achievement, in my opinion justifiable art that simply could not be reproduced in any other era. Having said that, there are aspects of the book that I can see might test the patience of a potential modern reader. In some respects, the framework of On the Road is an adjusted version of classic storytelling methods; presenting the biographical tale of an adventurous main character and his eccentric collection of friends, who wind in and out of his life as he observes first hand the wondrous world around him. In this way I don't think the formula is very different to much of the work of classical authors such as Charles Dickens (something like David Copperfield for example), where the full scope of the character study becomes clearer once the book is finished.
I think the general problem that some people have with On the Road is that despite embracing and defining the cool beatnik style, Kerouac never makes much of an effort to portray the ficionalised version of himself as Sal Paradise, and his famous literary friends, as anything but what they are; extremely flawed people. Though obviously I'd be amazingly surprised if the events Kerouac portrays haven't been massively changed for dramatic and thematic purposes, but the key point to me was that he resists the urge to genuinely deify characters like Sal's best friend, the irrepressible Dean Moriarty. Sure, he's made very much larger than life, but as the book rolls on and the characters get older and guiltier, Sal Paradise's narrating voice is able to look at the consequences of a consequence-free life with a great deal more cynicism and remorse. It's towards the end of the book, where the myriad of wild characters are spread out in more difficult circumstances, that such poignancy becomes most apparent, and it was at that point where I found myself enjoying Keroac's work the most.
I can understand why some people might not like the style of the bulk of the book, where Sal and his assorted friends travel around America at a breakneck pace, barely staying in one place long enough to establish a developing plot. Bukowski essentially does a similar thing in his novels like Factotum, but Kerouac's book differs crucially in its extended length and a lack of the black humour that Bukowski so effortlessly stamps his fiction with; making those books more easily consumable. Instead I personally found much of the tone of On the Road to be rather tragic, not so much during the tales of fun and adventure per sei, but with the dawn of the morning after, where characters guiltily remember the responsibilities they've been doing their best to ignore. The character of Dean Moriarty is obviously the prime example of all of this. He struck me as the Jay Gatsby to Sal Paradise's Nick Carraway, echoing The Great Gatsby in a narrator observing a larger than life friend succumbing to his own vices and secret emotional immaturity.
So then, to try and bring things to a conclusion, I'm very happy that I finally came back to On the Road. There were parts that laboured before my eyes more than others and I don't think I'm ever likely to call it personally one of my favourite books, but it was incredibly poignant with characters sure to lodge in my brain for eternity, as they have done for so many other readers. In terms of understanding the landscape of twentieth century American fiction the importance of the book is undeniable, with Kerouac's style (literary and coolness) going on to heavily shape the counter-cultural literary scene of the 1960's and 70's, with the help of writers like the ones fictionalised in On the Road. I think you have to take a look at it once, but perhaps the second time's the charm.