Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” – book review

I never thought I’d say it, but I enjoyed reading Kerouac.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve heard lots of good about him and I know On the Road is a classic. But it’s a classic written by a guy high on benzedrine in three weeks. It’s a classic that talks about drugs, alcohol, and free living. It just didn’t seem my style. I’m much more at home with 800+page classic outlining the existential doubts and social struggle in the 19th-century. That’s my idea of fun.

And then I read the first few sentences of On the Road

“I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up. I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won’t bother to talk about, except that it had something to do with the miserably weary split-up and my feeling that everything was dead.”

And I was hooked. I dig that. The man could write.

All throughout the description of orgiastic experiences of parties are passages of striking lyricism.

“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!”
These men are really looking for something. Far from a nihilistic drowning of sorrows (although there’s some of that too), the drug-fuelled search is for some sort of higher experiential truth. And although I question the methods, the sentiment is an appealing one.

Now, the thing that no one had mentioned about On the Road that I definitely did not like, was the book’s attitude towards women. It’s funny, because having heard of On the Road as a such a revolutionary work, I thought liberated women was something I wouldn’t have to worry about. They’d be there. Hah. How wrong can you be.

Here’s a random example: “Marylou sewed his socks and we were ready to go”
The women in On the Road exist only as foils for the men to show their genius. Or rather to be fucked by the narrator or Dean Moriarty. That’s it. That is their entire role in life. They don’t get to search for the meaning of life. They just get screwed over by the men. To make things more humiliating, they are laden with traditional women’s roles (sowing socks, childrearing, cooking meals) but are also partially responsible for supporting the men. Sal writes “I have a woman friend who gives me whisky and money and big suppers.”
Here’s another Kerouac passage on ideal woman.
“There’s real woman for you. Never a harsh word, never a complaint, or modified; her old man can come in any hour of the night with anybody and have talks in the kitchen and drink the beer and leave any old time. This is a man, and that’s his castle.”

Whenever Marylou or Camille got back together with Dean I just wanted to shout “Nooooo”. We also have the narrator (Sal) sympathizing with poor Dean who broke his hand while slapping Marylou on the face. Oh, poor Dean. What about MARYLOU whose partner was trying to hit her? She also keeps being called a whore, even though she is far less sexually promiscuous than her male partners.

 In many ways, On the Road is a study of complete self-absorption. The egocentrism of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty as they travel through America is absolutely mind-boggling. They are completely happy living from day to day, earning a couple of dollars as they go along and never assuming responsibility for the consequences of their actions: “It’s not my fault! it’s not my fault!” I told him. “Nothing in the world is my fault, don’t you see that? I don’t want it to be and it can’t be and it won’t be.”

Dean gets women pregnant and steals cars, and yet somehow he is the embodiment of the American dream, a mystic, at least according to Sal Paradise.

This book, like its heroes, is completely messed-up in a variety of ways. And yet somehow it manages to be strangely appealing. I am very glad I read it.
P.S. I share a strange childhood fantasy with Sal and Dean
“As a child lying back in my father’s car in the back seat I also had a vision of myself on a white horse riding alongside over every possible obstacle that presented itself”…)
“Yes!Yes! Yes! (…) Only difference with me was, I myself ran (…) I perhaps in my wilder schizophrenia actually ran on foot along the car and at incredible speeds sometimes ninety, making it over every bush and fence and farmhouse…”
That was something I tended to imagine when sitting in the back of a car, when I was about six or seven… And I mean the running, not the horseback riding…
Also, when I was really getting annoyed with On the Road, this was the song that was stuck in my head
It’s almost a summary, really.
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3 thoughts on “Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” – book review

  1. I loved On the Road when I first read it in my late 20s. I hated it when I reread it in my early 30s.

    The narrator is almost obsessed with Dean. At some point in the reader’s life Dean is going to tip over from being charismatic to being recognizably toxic (as will the lifestyle of the characters).

    Liked by 1 person

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