Archive for July, 2013

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

Posted in Book Reviews with tags , , , , , on July 26, 2013 by Nick Merrill

The particular aesthetic of On The Road – that vagaband wanderlust infused with sex and alcohol – will always retain a certain appeal as it diverts us from the bureaucratic banalities of day-to-day existence in America. But the book is too laden with repetition to stand out as truly great literature. It’s striking in its first 100 pages, right up until the point where Kerouac continues hitting the same notes for the rest of his story.

I read the ‘Original Scroll’ of On the Road. Unlike the version first published, it’s a memoir, not a novel. The Original Scroll uses the characters’ real names, whereas the novel uses substitutes, e.g. Neal Cassady becomes Dean Moriarty. The Original Scroll is also one long paragraph. This would’ve been more jarring had I not read Infinite Jest this year, which inoculated me to walls of text. The style actually complements the book fairly well, giving it the feeling of that long, winding, endless road which its characters live to traverse.

The book begins in New York, where Kerouac, living with his grandmother and intermittently working on a novel, first meets Neal Cassady, a voraciously curious juvenile delinquent. Kerouac surrounds himself with a group of like-minded individuals who live to create art, party, and soak up the world around them. The most notable member of his clique is eccentric poet Allen Ginsberg. They’re all in awe of Neal Cassady, whose inexhaustible appetite for sex, conversation, and adventure drives much of the story.

The book is at its most dynamic in its early sections, when Kerouac first travels westward to meet his friends in Denver. He hitchhikes much of the way, meeting an assortment of strange characters and witnessing America from an intriguingly lopsided angle. There are a few passages where Kerouac, considering the vastness of America, strikes a somewhat evocative and mystical note, passing on his joy and sorrow.

In the whole eastern dark wall of the Divide this night there was silence and the whisper of the wind, except in the ravine where we roared; and on the other side of the Divide was the great western slope, and the big plateau that went to Steamboat Springs, and dropped, and led you to the Eastern Colorado desert and the Utah desert; all in darkness now as we fumed and screamed in our mountain nook, mad drunken Americans in the mighty land. And beyond, beyond, over the Sierras the other side of Carson sink was bejeweled bay-encircled nightlike old Frisco of my dreams. We were situated on the roof of America and all we could do was yell, I guess–across the night, eastward over the plains where somewhere an old man with white hair was probably walking towards us with the Word and would arrive any minute and make us silent.

There’s a definite religious edge to the text – Kerouac was a Catholic, and his time on the road was in many ways a spiritual journey. But On the Road isn’t dogmatic, and its brand of faith has little to do with the puritanical morality that many associate with organized religion. The book’s prophet, Neal Cassady, preaches a wild lust for life. His catchphrase might as well be, “Dig _______.” He takes an interest in almost everything around: houses, people, etc.  Neal’s not a typical prophet in that he doesn’t sacrifice; he pursues his selfish pleasure with an almost overwhelming vigor. But he brings joy and ‘kicks’ to those he spends time with.

The religion of On the Road has to do with universality; Kerouac searches for God in jazz clubs, cars, women, art, etc. He hurtles across America, ever eager for the next new experience that’ll bring him closer into contact with the great organism of existence. The book’s argument is appealing if not entirely convincing. Kerouac lives his life with an enviable abandon, but his moments of spiritual epiphany sometimes feel a bit arbitrary. His writing fails to entirely convey the correlation between his overlapping tangible and ethereal experiences.

This failure is in part due to the writing’s repetitious nature. Descriptions of jazz clubs and wildly fast car rides become a bit too similar to remain engaging. Neal Cassady, whose absurd zeal starts off fresh, quickly becomes a bit one-note. There are exceptions: a few passages towards the end convey a weary, tragic aspect to Neal. But too many of his monologues sound too similar. Ultimately, he ends up sounding a bit too much like that annoying, over-excitable, cliche-spewing guy we all know.

Neal, the book’s  driving force and personality, is most palatable in small doses. He features less in Kerouac’s early travels, which is probably why I enjoyed the book’s first section more. The book quickly reaches a point where it stops surprising. I acknowledge that in 2013, the text will of course seem less shocking and inventive than it did when first published. But Kerouac’s bag of tricks is limited, and he runs out of fresh ideas quickly. The story would have been better served as a 100-150 page novella, instead of as a 300 page novel.

Kerouac’s prose has a nice, stream-of consciousness rhythm. The effect is like listening to your eloquent, slightly drunk friend rattle off an overly long but ultimately interesting story. From what I’ve read, the normal version of On the Road contains more literary digressions than the Original Scroll first draft. I took a risk reading the latter first, but it’s what we had lying around the house. And though I haven’t read the standard copy, I get the sense that the unpolished, rambling nature of the first draft might fit the story better.

On the Road is an important memoir, or roman a clef, depending on which version you’re reading. It’s comprehensive in its description of Kerouac’s wandering, but in being so it fails to be a truly great book, as it succumbs to repetition and becomes a bit monotonic. Its rhythmic style makes it easy and often fun to read throughout, even if it fails to live up to its initial promise.