On On the Road

By Frederick Holt

The film adaptation of On the Road, starring Sam Riley, Kristen Stewart and Garrett Hedlund

Image courtesy of Little White Lies

‘What’s your road man? – holyboy road, madman road, rainbow road, guppy road, any road. It’s an anywhere road for anybody anyhow.’

Jack Kerouac was able to turn the dull into the extraordinary. Sal Paradise, a fictional inspiration for Kerouac, travels around America in the 1950’s following a gang of friends including the wild and elusive Dean Moriarty. It comes down to Kerouac’s stream of consciousness style of writing based off letters that the real-life inspiration for Dean Moriarty, Neal Cassidy, wrote. They were spontaneous, highly emotional and in the moment.

Most of the book is nothing more than Paradise wondering around America looking for Dean, which might be off putting to modern readers. It’s all conflict before the sudden realisation of futility occurs down in Mexico concerning Paradise and Dean’s relationship .

There is something about Kerouac and his book. His life as a traveller, the ease with which he met strangers, his fascination with jazz and anything that was either strange or taboo. There is something there that alludes to what people should look for in life. In an age where the middle-class go on gap years, ride motorbikes, and come home to compete about who did the stupidest thing, there’s something pure about dropping everything and travelling the old-fashioned way: as a broke hitchhiker at the mercy of fate.

One time, I was sitting in a hotel annoyed about something, perhaps about where I was staying. Strangers turned up who said they were heading somewhere out West by the coast looking for surfers. I finished my drink, grabbed my bag, looked at the guy I’d been sitting with and said, “I’m going West, I’ll catch you later.” I went out on that hot day, the bus broke down, and we stayed in a house with a bar made out of fallen bricks. I’m not sure that I would have done that without Kerouac, without his influence.

The novel is a reflection of the Beat Generation, when Post War America was in a time of alienation and confusion. When On the Road came out, Joyce Johnson, biographer of the Beats, recalled that Kerouac went to bed and ‘woke up famous’.

First edition of On the Road by Jack Kerouac

Image courtesy of RaptisRareBooks

Thus, it was a zeitgeist book. ‘It changed my life, like it changed everybody else’s’, as Bob Dylan put it. Except it didn’t change Kerouac’s life for the better. His book went beyond being a commercial success and became a kind of monster. William S. Burroughs, an older Beat writer, described it as something the media exploited: ‘[I]t sold a million Levi jeans, a million espresso machines, and sent countless kids out on the road.’ Cold, but true. Kerouac and other Beat writers are an example of what happens when a work of art is taken into popular culture and runs out of control. Kerouac was already insecure about his book. He was Catholic which collided with his Beat aspirations, pathological guilt was a big part of his character. He drank a lot.

It sounds like a confusing book and it is. A good summary is that half of it alludes to a kind of beautiful freedom while the other half is bullshit. The confusion provides no resolution and the ending is both reflective and sad.

Who should read it? Anyone interested in Jazz, the 1950’s and 60’s, and counter culture movement. But equally, anyone who feels like they need to work on getting off social media and go out to find their own party.

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