"On The Road", the classic 1957 novel by Jack Kerouac, had been residing on my bookshelves for some time, pleading to be read. To my shame, I have hardly read any "Beat" literature, and was therefore a little unsure what to expect.
In a nutshell, "On The Road" tells the story of Sal Paradise (the narrator, and based on Kerouac himself) and his friends as they embark on various journeys and trips across America. It is semi-autobiographical, and other characters are based on Kerouac's friends and associates. The tale is set primarily in the late 1940s.
To grasp the essence of this novel, it is necessary to understand the mindset of the colourful characters, in particular that of Dean Moriarty, Sal's friend and regular travelling companion. They habitually operate outside what would be considered social norms. The fact that their outlook still seems outlandish is perhaps a sad commentary on twenty-first century life. Are we still, deep down, so conformist?
The "Beat" concept is somewhat nebulous at the best of times, and must appear even more so with our modern modes of communication and discourse, and their tendency to polarize so many things. The lifestyles appear dissolute, but the joie-de-vivre of Dean and the others is enticing. Some of the behaviour detailed in "On The Road" must bemuse even self-proclaimed free spirits. The effect is perhaps more acute because these events are meant to have occurred not long after World War 2, in a period when we are told that most people were craving stability and security.
The fact that this book has a narrator is an aid to keeping track of the characters and their numerous trials, tribulations, revelations and relocations. One of the surprising things to newcomers is that this story is not one of a single journey or trip, but a series occurring over several years, with other events sandwiched in between.
Along the way, we meet a number of engaging and fascinating figures, and learn about their encounters with our "heroes". Many of these episodes are touching and poignant. Some are vignettes, others are more protracted and in-depth. The sadness and harshness of lives, but also the richness and vitality of our world and the human experience. The occasional craziness does not totally obscure the genuine pathos. What also emerges is an affinity for sub-cultures, for the marginalized and the downtrodden.
Whilst reading "On The Road", I was reminded that it would have been easier to pursue these adventures back in those days, when the world was not so weighed down by regulations and bureaucracy. The title "On The Road" does not just denote a journey, but a way of life, a world-view and an ongoing quest. The "unconventional" existence being led by these people was also a strikingly simple one. Straight society struggles to comprehend that it makes its own life complicated and burdensome.
The conduct of the circle becomes more exuberant and far-out once Dean Moriarty fully re-enters the fray. The prose grows more poetic and evocative, and the stream-of-consciousness a more frequent feature.
The outlook of some characters, such as Old Bull Lee, might surprise or confuse a few people. Explicit social commentary is offered only sparingly, and is not always about "obvious" topics. The reluctance to take the easy option is one of the most noticeable things about this novel.
It seemed that in this book, Kerouac acquired the knack of imbuing the mundane with drama and nobility, and of placing the everyday alongside the esoteric and the exotic. The "cameos", involving hitch-hikers and other people met along the routes, add charm and variety, and help to form the tapestry, as well as telling us more about the impulses driving the main players.
In amongst the euphoria and the exhilaration which the participants met on their travels, there were periods of disenchantment and despair, when "home", in its conventional sense, seemed the best place to be after all. In between the trips, acquaintances were renewed and the changes absorbed.
Personally, I could take or leave the lengthy passages extolling the virtues of various jazz musicians, and of the source and impact of their artistry, but I accept that they are important in forming an understanding the world of Dean, Sal and company.
Criminality raises its head more and more as the story progresses. They may have been testing the boundaries, but were they in reality flagrantly breaching them? A theme which gradually predominates is the decision of people to shun and ostracize Dean. Of course, Sal was not one of these. I identified with Sal more than I did with Dean, but Dean's story is admittedly more heart-rending, vibrant and eventful.
The chapters set in Mexico are the most stimulating, and in some respects the centrepiece of the whole story. Mexico as a metaphor for the promised land, what these people have been searching for? Needless to say, the ultimate outcome is rather ambiguous.
One of the lessons which I detected in the pages of "On The Road" is that however dismal and monotonous things may appear, there is always something good just around the corner, and there is plenty to relish and savour in the "here and now". Much of the problem is one of perception, and how we have been conditioned to think and approach our lives and the world around us. Life is a never-ending cycle...
This is a novel which it is possible to read quite quickly, as it has a flow to it, and does not compel the reader to take in every semi-colon and comma. Not quite what I was expecting, in all honesty, but equally I enjoyed "On The Road" more than I had anticipated.