I can remember when I first read On the Road in 1991. I can remember being on an ACTION bus and being engrossed by the book. Here was what life was about, here were people traveling,living and having adventures. It seemed like a great way to live. In retrospect, 19 years later the book doesn’t seem so wise. It is, however, a great book.
The book tells the story of Sal Paradise, Kerouac, and Dean Moriarty, Neal Cassady, their friends and their travels and adventures across the US and Mexico. The two were friends with William S Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, John Clellon Holmes and Herbert Huncke amongst others. The two travel across the US, drink, take drugs and find women to love. Sal is the quieter character, in awe of Dean who meets more women, marries more women and lives life at a great pace.
Both Kerouac and Cassady would go on to live fairly short lives, both dying in their 40s. Cassady would feature in Hunter S Thompson’s Hell’s Angles, Ken Kesey’s Demon Box and as the driver of the bus in Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. He also lived with Grateful Dead and is featured in a song of theirs called “Cowboy Neal”. Kerouac held the hippies, many of whom were inspired by his work, in disdain.
The book is till inspirational even if the life of the protagonists and the story itself hints that living an authentic joyous life would end in an early grave. Perhaps the more balanced life led by some of the other Beat Generation authors is wiser. The way women are treated in the book is awful. Dean’s progeny and wives are left scattered across the US. But there is no book that captures the excitement of travel and adventure as well as On the Road. Indeed it’s disappointing that no one has written an international On the Road that captures the brilliance of international travel and the thrills that are had by people traveling and working around the world today.
The style of the book, described memorably by Truman Capote as “typing not writing” is actually skillful. Kerouac used the speed and intensity to give the reader emotional intensity. The book is still very easily readable though compared to other modernist writers like James Joyce and William Faulkner.
Kerouac had an enormous effect on me. I made the pilgrimage after driving across the US with friends to Lowell to go to his memorial. As such, the review of this book ends obviously and that despite the books flaws and the longer term view of the thrills that comes with age it’s still a great achievement.