Review: ‘On the Road’ by Jack Kerouac

on the road_kerouacBy the time this review is posted, I’ll literally be on the road to Connecticut with my best friend and her cat. It’ll be a grand adventure and 100 percent more planned out than Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty’s jaunts across the U.S.

I have to confess that I finished reading “On the Road” a couple weeks ago, and I just haven’t gotten around to writing a review of it. I guess I put more priority on catching up on “Outlander” and showing my parents around Chicago. Such is life.

Jack Kerouac’s classic novel follows two friends — Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty — whose four cross-country road trips are a quest for meaning and true experience. The novel is based off of Kerouac’s own experiences traveling across America with Neal Cassady (Moriarty), Allen Ginsberg (Carlo Marx) and William S. Burroughs (Old Bull Lee) — this style is known as a roman á clef. “On the Road” is known as the quintessential American novel about freedom and what it means to be “Beat.” It was chosen by Time magazine as one of the 100 best English-language novels from 1923-2005. This book defined the Beat generation, and inspired many others since its publication nearly 60 years ago.

So there was a lot of hype. I went into the book with the mindset of, “Why is this one of the quintessential American novels?” Probably not the best plan, mind you, but that’s what I tried to figure out with each chapter and each page and each long paragraph.

Man, I wish I could write like Kerouac. His writing style is so jazzy, so musical, so … Beat. There’s really no other way to describe it. Kerouac puts you in the moment — I felt as if I were riding along in the backseat, watching Dean hunched over the wheel and gunning down the highway. One of my favorite passages is when Dean and Sal are watching George Shearing (“the great jazz pianist”):

“And Shearing began to rock; a smile broke over his ecstatic face; he began to rock in the piano seat, back and forth, slowly at first, then the beat went up, and he began rocking fast, his left foot jumped up with every beat, his neck began to rock crookedly, he brought his face down to the keys, he pushed his hair back, his combed hair dissolved, he began to sweat. The bass-player hunched over and socked it in, faster and faster, it seemed faster and faster that’s all. Shearing began to play his chords, they rolled out of the piano in great rich showers, you’d think the man wouldn’t have time to line them up. They rolled and rolled like the sea.” (128)

I hate hate hate extremely long sentences with lots of commas. I forget what the sentence is saying before I even get to the end. But with Kerouac, it works. With the passage above, it’s as if the words are following the song Shearing is playing. The words are on the beat. And the whole novel is written this way.

Another section of the book I got a kick out of was during Sal’s first trip across the U.S. when he stops in Stuart, Iowa. Have you ever been to Stuart? Have you ever heard of it? I have — during my four years going to school in Lincoln, Nebraska, I always made a pit stop for gas when I was driving to and from the Twin Cities. It’s the perfect halfway point between the two. Sal makes the comment that Stuart was a town he was really stranded in — and 60 years later, he’d probably feel the same if he made the same trip.

…I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, made to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time … (5)

For all the great things about this novel, I couldn’t bring myself to care about Dean. I’m not sure why. Maybe because it’s about two straight white boys doing whatever they please? I wondered how the story would be different if it were about two women on a road trip. I wanted to know more about Marylou other than how Dean was so in love with her but referred to her as a whore multiple times. I cared a little for Sal, but there were many times where I rolled my eyes and shook my head at his decisions.

Maybe one day I’ll come back and read this again. Perhaps when I’m about to take another road trip across America.

… but now the bug was on me again, and the bug’s name was Dean Moriarty and I was off on another spurt around the road. (115)

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