On the Road is billed as an epic adventure story chronicling the travels of Sal Paradise and his motley assortment of friends back and forth across the North American continent. It’s a semi-autobiographical rendition of author Jack Kerouac’s experiences as part of the ‘Beat Generation’ and he has stated that the character of Sal is heavily based on himself while his good friend Neal Cassady was the inspiration for Dean Moriarty.
It’s taken me a while to write this review because I needed to work out how I feel about it before putting anything down on paper. When I first started reading it I was worried that it was going to be a bit ‘philosophical’ for my tastes. I put that in inverted commas because it’s not that I am averse to proper philosophy or a books with a political point, it’s just that I find young men who know very little about the world prattling on about rights and wrongs kind of annoying. I’ve read lots of books like this and had a fair number of conversations in real life along the same lines and it’s not something I relish.
However a couple of chapters in Sal leaves New York to head to San Francisco and things started to look up. I loved the description of his journey across the country; I’ve never been to America and if I’m honest it’s not a country that’s ever appealed to me and as a slightly cowardly person it’s highly unlikely that if I do I’ll choose to go hitchhiking from coast-to-coast. But when Sal was riding along on that flatbed truck with a bunch of other travellers sharing a bottle of whiskey and watching the miles pass by gave me a real yen to follow in his footsteps. The real strength of this book lies in those chapters for me, Kerouac made the call of the road tangible and he infected me with his love of travel. This feeling persisted throughout Sal’s stay in Denver, the people he met, the parties he went to and the mad things they all got up to kept me entertained and he kept the philosophising to a minimum. Actually I stayed with him through his stay in ‘Frisco and his romance with Terry who he meets on the bus to L.A. and ends up living with in a tent in her hometown. I liked Terry and I thought she and Sal made a good couple, she brought out the best in him but alas, like so much in this book, it was not to last. Eventually Sal decides he really does have to head back home to his aunt and so begins another cross-country journey.
I’m not going to spend any more time on the plot – all you really need to know is that Sal spends a heck of a lot of time wishing he was on the other coast and crossing the country by hitchhiking/jumping a train/driving or occasionally actually buying a bus ticket to get there.
The story is really about the characters and their endless pursuit of ‘kicks’, that uncertain quantity that will somehow make their lives worth living. There’s a large quantity of alcohol, quite a bit of drugs and a fair amount of sex involved in this pursuit which in 1957 was probably quite scandalous but I actually found it rather tame (if you want a scandalous amount of sex read Love in the Time of Cholera) by today’s standards.
It’s still hard to know what I think about this book, looking back now I feel quite sorry for Sal and his crew and the way they spent so much time and energy looking for something that they couldn’t quite identify but when I was actually reading it they annoyed the hell out of me. By the end of the book every time someone suggested taking a trip I sighed a little knowing exactly what was coming. It just all got a bit much for me. And I kept expecting Dean to have a mental breakdown or a heart attack or something, it was quite stressful if I’m honest, I can’t imagine what it was like to actually live that life.
Sal is enrolled in college for a large part of the book although unless he was studying how to travel 1,000s of miles and get incredibly drunk on no money at all, he didn’t seem to do an awful lot of studying and this started to grate on me. It wasn’t just the studying, Dean got married more times than I could count, had children and other responsibilities yet as soon as the notion occurred to him he’d jump in a car and leave all of them behind. Sal too kept leaving not only his school but the love of his life, his jobs, everything as soon as Dean called and it made me want to shout at them all. I just wanted them to calm down, grow up and face their responsibilities.
The book is about the quest to discover what life is about and the sense of confusion and yearning for fulfilment comes through loud and clear. Whether I would recommend it or not I’m still not sure but at some distance from actually reading it I can see why it deserves its place on the list. I may have got fed up of all the ‘jumping’ and ‘digging’ but I can appreciate that this book is the portrait of a generation and the fight they faced to make their own path through the world.