Author: Jack Kerouac
Publisher: Penguin Books, 2012
On the Road is one of those books people either love or hate – I very much fall into the love camp on this one. I can’t think of any better way to get into the Beat Generation writers than starting with this slim volume. Jack Kerouac based the novel on experiences he shared with his friends while they embarked on epic road trips across the US. Though all the characters are fictionalised, it’s easy to make the connections. Dean Moriarty is Neal Cassady, Bull Lee is William Burroughs, and Sal Paradise is Jack Kerouac… and so on.
If anyone has a passing familiarity with the Beat Generation, then the varied cast that crops up in On the Road will be old friends. Only, now the dynamics of their relationships are brought to life in a haze of liquor, wild jazz, marijuana smoke, fast cars and tender affection.
Primary to On the Road is the relationship between Sal and Dean. They exist as polar opposites of each other. Plainly put, Dean is a womanising hedonist, who lives completely in the moment, while Sal hero-worships the man. I gain the impression that this was a situation of mutual fascination – each possessed qualities the other admired. Charismatic Dean is impulsive, while Sal is a sensitive, somewhat retiring sort. The two complement each other as they embark on their brave misadventures together.
I admit I wanted to throttle Dean on more than one occasion. Some story arcs, such as Dean’s atrocious driving and what he did to cars, made me cringe and laugh out loud, yet at the same time I couldn’t quite shake my growing sense of sadness at Dean’s eventual outcome. The way Sal frames him in the narrative, it is clear that his friend is a star that burns quickly and brightly, while his own journey, though no less complicated, will eventually lead him down another path.
Throughout On the Road, I am struck by the sense of the ephemeral, transient nature of life, and how the more we quest after those defined moments of awareness, the more we are aware of the impermanence of experience.
The question is, do we grasp every maximum moment, or do we err on the side of caution and conformity? How do we define ourselves in a world that is hostile to individuality? On the Road offers a glimpse back to an era when the concept of the nonconformist was as yet unexplored and brings to life a sheer, manic exuberance and passion for living and, much like life, there is no tidy ending.