Rereading On the Road (1957) after these many years is a bit like reuniting with an old college buddy–the guy who was super-fun, super-interesting, super-cool back in the day. But upon running into him again years later . . . you begin to notice his flaws. Not quite as charming as you remember, not quite as smart; and somehow you missed the fact that he was a bit of a narcissist, a bit of a con-man, and maybe even a bit of a bore.
Complicating things, however, is that even though both of you are years down the road, that first encounter is surprisingly fresh in your memory. You can still recall the vibrancy and vitality and excitement you felt back then. And even though he’s not quite the way you remember him, not by a long shot, you can’t totally reject your past together either.
Which is all by way of saying that re-reading Kerouac’s On the Road after forty years is a distinctly disorienting experience. It makes for a very bumpy ride.
Yes, there are gobs of great, raw, powerful writing. Passages that have remained hard-wired into my psyche all these years. And, at the very same time, there are gobs and gobs of the most dreadful dreck.
That’s the thing about this novel: moments of transcendent beauty are mixed in with moments where the writing is so bad you feel your teeth involuntarily grinding. It’s like being on a long road trip, where for every moment of excitement and wonder, there are long stretches of utter tedium. For every glimpse of the serene and breathtaking Rocky Mountains, there are hours spent stuck in a muddy roadside ditch just outside of nowheresville.
One can’t help but recall and in some ways agree with Truman Capote’s well-known crack about Kerouac’s prose, “that’s not writing, that’s typing.” Let me admit it: reading On the Road again is a bit of a slog.
Which is very different from my first encounter with On the Road. My youthful reaction to the novel was almost uniformly positive; I loved the book without reservation.
The allure of Kerouac’s novel to a young person is not hard to understand. It’s all about youth and energy and vitality and freedom. And movement, above all, it’s a book about movement. When I first read the book as a college sophomore, working like mad to keep up my GPA while holding down a full-time job, the book was catnip. Why wouldn’t it be? It was a young adult male’s wet dream: travel, adventure, casual sex, no job, no term papers to hand in, no messy adult relationships, no responsibilities.
And, make no mistake, even coming back to the book now–when my reaction has become much more shaded and critical–there are still moments of beauty and power. Kerouac’s best writing occurs when he is straightforwardly describing the country that Sal Paradise (his thinly disguised stand-in) is barreling through. When Sal slows down long enough to notice the landscape, listens to the country’s rhythms, connects with the hobos and Okies and other fellow travelers, the book still manages to delight.
Tracy is a railroad town; brakemen eat surly meals in diners by the tracks. Trains howl away across the valley. The sun goes down long and red. All the magic names of the valley unrolled–Manteca, Madera, all the rest. Soon it got dusk, a grapy dusk, a purple dusk over tangerine groves and long melon fields; the sun the color of pressed grapes, slashed with burgundy red, the fields the color of love and Spanish mysteries. I stuck my head out the window and took deep breaths of the fragrant air. It was the most beautiful of all moments.
There is still something alluring about the book’s celebration of experience and stretching boundaries, of going for the sake of going, of experimenting for the sake of experimenting. It is the quintessential young person’s book.
I had the following quote on my refrigerator for many years:
. . . because 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 “Awww!”
But reading On the Road again, it’s hard to regard the book as a simple celebration of the footloose life of its main characters. What I notice now is how frenetic and meaningless and ultimately sad their journey is. I’m not sure if I misread the book back then: was this undertone of futility and aimlessness there all along, but in the heedlessness of my youth I just missed it? Or–as an older guy who finds much to dislike about the book and its characters–am I wrong now?
Whichever it is, Sal and Dean’s relentless need to “go man go” didn’t seem so appealing and charming when I read the book this time around:
“Sal, we gotta go and never stop going till we get there.”
“Where we going, man?”
“I don’t know but we gotta go.”
And there is a great deal about the novel that apparently slipped by me back then, things that bother me now.
One major issue–something I don’t recall even noticing back when I first read it–is the way women are regarded in the novel. There is a huge swath of misogyny running through the book (and, indeed, throughout much of Beat literature). The women in the novel are portrayed as either nagging girlfriends/wives (who need at all costs to be escaped) or they are “whores” (a word that Sal and Dean toss around indiscriminately). There appears to be no in-between.
On the Road contains no fully imagined women. For the most part, the book is about the ultimate boy’s club. Imagine being poor Marylou, Dean’s first wife. This is Sal’s introduction of Marylou:
But, outside of being a sweet little girl, she was awfully dumb and capable of doing horrible things. That night we all drank beer and pulled wrists and talked till dawn, and in the morning, while we sat around dumbly smoking butts from ashtrays in the gray light of a gloomy day, Dean got up nervously, paced around, thinking, and decided the thing to do was to have Marylou make breakfast and sweep the floor.
Time and again, Dean or Sal or the other male characters are in the process of ditching the women in their lives, often leaving them in dire circumstances. The women, meanwhile, are the only ones in the novel who appear to be capable of holding down steady jobs, raising children, acting like adults.
This is Galatea Dunkin (wife of Sal and Dean’s friend Ed Dunkel) chastising Dean:
“You have absolutely no regard for anybody but yourself and your damned kicks. All you think about is what’s hanging between your legs and how much money or fun you can get out of people and then you just throw them aside.”
Which leads us to the second major issue with the novel: the immaturity and frat house nature of the lives that Sal and Dean and the rest of their crew lead. Because no matter how Kerouac dresses them up in Sal’s heightened, romanticizing language, taken at face value they are a pretty loud, obnoxious, immature, self-involved bunch. Boiled down to its essence: the novel is essentially a story of spoiled white boys on a road trip.
A list of their offenses is damning: public drunkenness, vandalism, all manner of driving infractions (including numerous de facto DWIs), petty theft, and (in Dean’s case) several potential counts of grand theft auto. And there is a constant theme of mooching off of others: all the male characters are constantly sponging off other people (especially the women in their lives). This includes Sal who–for all his pronouncements of independence and autonomy–often hits up his aunt for money when things get tight.
Maybe that’s one of the consequences of getting older. The first time I read the novel I identified totally with the young rude boys. How cool, speeding through a small, sleepy Midwestern town totally high. Now, I find myself wondering whose car did they just steal? Should they really be drunk-driving at 110 miles per hour? How is Dean’s second wife, Camille, going to be able to keep her job and take care of their two small kids now that Dean has suddenly abandoned her and is speeding off across the continent?
And finally, there is the character of Dean Moriarity himself. Although Sal calls Dean Moriarity at various times a “saint,” an “angel,” and a “hero”–he is none of these things. Back in college Dean’s brand of manic behavior, compulsive talking, bargain basement philosophizing struck me as the height of cool. This time around? Not so much. I have a feeling that if I ended up sitting next to Dean at a bar, I’d soon be searching around for a muzzle.
Nowadays, a little of Dean goes a long way:
He giggled maniacally and didn’t care; he rubbed his fly, stuck his finger in Marylou’s dress, slurped up her knee, frothed at the mouth, and said, “Darling, you know and I know that everything is straight between us at last beyond the furthest abstract definition in metaphysical terms or any terms you want to specify or sweetly impose or harken back . . .” and so on . . .
The last paragraph of On the Road is an almost perfect encapsulation of the novel itself–unfettered, long-winded, a little chaotic, a little out of control, and yet possessing a mysterious raw power. Doesn’t quite make sense, doesn’t quite add up, and yet I can understand why it so attracted me then and, for better or for worse, why it still attracts me now:
So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievably huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars’ll be out, and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear? the evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarity, I even think of Old Dean Moriarity the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarity.