“What’ll we do? What’ll we do? Let’s move”.
“I just won’t sleep,” I decided. There were so many other interesting things to do.”
If you had to summarise this novel in two quotes, there you are!
‘On the Road’ tells the breathless story of the adventures of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, “two broken down heroes of the Western night”. Set in the years immediately after the Second World War, Sal and Dean, young men of no known occupation or visible means of support, criss-cross America restlessly by car, train and plane:
“Sal, we gotta go and never stop going ’till we get there.’
‘Where we going, man?’
‘I don’t know but we gotta go.”
In the course of their travels they have numerous encounters with fascinating characters, and as many adventures, accidents, near-misses and simply random incidents, all apparently transcribed from Kerouac’s own life. ‘On the Road’ captures a sense of restlessness, the need to travel to a better place without quite knowing where or why, that seems prevalent in so many American novels. There’s nothing glorious about their adventures – they are often penniless, begging money from friends, relatives, and strangers, and stealing when they can. Whenever they do come into any money it is almost always immediately spent on alcohol, women or drugs. The rest is wasted. Their destinations are usually a pretext for the journey itself – often they arrive and immediately set off back again. What they are in search of is in many ways the heart of the novel – are they looking for a diversion from the unhappiness of their lives, as some critics have speculated, or are they simply representatives of the wanderlust that defined this post-war survivors generation?
“We lay on our backs, looking at the ceiling, and wondering what God had wrought when He made life so sad”.
Paradise and Moriarty, a great name for a double act or crime fighting duo if ever there was one, travel because they are excited by the possibilities of the future, and bored by the present. They are trying to escape from themselves, but of course never can.
“Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road
“I was surprised, as always, by how easy the act of leaving was, and how good it felt. The world was suddenly rich with possibility.”
This is the most obviously experimental of the novels I have reviewed to date, all the more so for its period of composition. Its subject matter – people living rootless lives without purpose beyond the next drink or woman – and the freeform, stream of consciousness narrative style were highly experimental for the time (I am not saying, of course, that Kerouac invented stream of consciousness writing, or was the first person to write about people chasing women, having sex, and taking drugs). Equally the process of composition that Kerouac adopted was experimental – famously ‘On the Road’ was written on a continuous spool of paper, in a three week frenzy of spontaneous uninterrupted writing. This anarchic, freeform and fast flowing prose jumps of the page in a way that perfectly conveys the lives of the characters in the novel. It is almost impossible to quote with any brevity, but open any page and the words seem to tumble out at you. There are some moments of lyrical beauty as well, such as some of the descriptive passages:
“Soon it got dusk, a grapy dusk, a purple dusk over tangerine groves and long melon fields; the sun the color of pressed grapes, slashed with burgundy red, the fields the color of love and Spanish mysteries.”
The insistence of the journey theme in American literature derives I think from the importance and relative closeness of the immigrant/settler experience for many Americans. It’s easy to forget how young America is, with for example California and New Mexico being bought from Mexico only just over 150 years ago. The America Dean and Sal travel through is populated by sad Native Americans looking defeated and beat.
Damn, I thought I was going to get through this review without using that word!