“The greatest ride of my life was about to come up”, Jack Kerouac writes in On the Road (1957), “a truck, with a flatboard at the back, with about six or seven boys sprawled out on it, and the drivers, two young blond farmers from Minnesota, were picking up every single soul they found on that road”.
In my opinion, this scene could have been the opening scene of the whole novel; it is full of eagerness to live, experience and travel. The ride at the back of the flatbed truck is a short one and lasts only a few pages, but it captures the spirit and movement of the book.
On the Road is a classic piece of beat literature that Jack Kerouac wrote in 1951 within three weeks – however, it took several years before the novel was published in 1957. The book consists of four road trips Kerouac’s alter ego Sal Paradise takes across the United States of America in the late 40s and early 50s. He crosses the plains and mountains on his East-West journeys between New York, Denver and San Francisco but the last road trip takes a new direction and plunges all the way down to Mexico City through insect-filled jungle roads and substance-filled bars and brothels.
It is the world, said Dean. ‘My God!’ he cried, slapping the wheel. ‘It’s the world! We can go right on to South America if the road goes. Think of it!’Jack Kerouac, On the Road
Beat generation revamped prose. Kerouac with Alan Ginsberg, William Burroughs and other beat writers experimented with the free form writing, sexual liberation and spiritual experiences pushing the limits of what was appropriate in literature. Kerouac’s writing style in On the Road is simple and realistic – he used his notebooks as a base for the first draft and the novel retains the style of a travel journal. But every now and then the autobiographical story offers beautiful, lyrical thoughts..
The great blazing stars came out, the far-receding sand hills got dim. I felt like an arrow that could shoot all the way.Jack Kerouac, On the Road
The energy is in the text. The stream of thought flow keeps up the enthusiasm of the chaotic life Sal Paradise and his mates live. Whilst the story circles around the road trips, the novel is also about the alternative lifestyle which is far from the post-war American Dream with family values and suburban home.
In a way On the Road makes you want to take a road trip or hop on a train and ride it across the country; to be care-free, reckless, to just travel. On the other hand, it is quite exhausting. I am astonished how the characters have the energy to bounce back and forth – there are a lot of kilometres going by, plenty of pints and “tea”, as well as girls, marriages and divorces.
Oh yeah, the women, that’s a little quirk that makes the reading journey less enjoyable. Women come and go, get pregnant and are left behind. And it doesn’t matter how old the women are, they are still the objects of desire. The comments concerning the attractiveness of the young girls Sal Paradise and his friends encounter make me twitch.
“Little Janet, Frankie’s thirteen-year-old daughter, was the prettiest girl in the world and was about to grow up into a gone woman.” That’s not too terrible yet, but: “Dean sat in the farthest corner of the room with slitted eyes saying ‘Yes, yes, yes.’ Janet was already aware of him; she turned to me for protection“.
These men in their late twenties messing around with teenage girls are not just care-free people having fun but appalling creeps. I wonder whether Kerouac meant to make the reader uncomfortable or whether the times have simply changed so much that such behaviour is no longer casual nor funny.
Apart from the role the women have in the story, On the Road is a great, attention-capturing travel book. Well, travel book sounds like a wrong term for a piece of literature that has left such a heavy footprint in the history of the counterculture. But in the novel the journey is more important than the destination. Sal Paradise is full of questions of whats, whens and wheres, and the only way to find out the answers is to get on the road.