Monday, June 23, 2008


[From the STMcC archive; 2005, November 2nd]

Book: “ON THE ROAD” by Jack Kerouac; 1957

Grade: B -

"We'll pick up Hazy Davy and Killer Joe
And I'll take you all out to where the gypsy angels go

They're built like light
And they dance like spirits in the night (all night)
In the night (all night)
Oh, you don't know what they can do to you
Spirits in the night (all night)
In the night (all night)
Stand right up now and let them shoot through you"
~“Spirits In The Night” by Bruce Springsteen.

I happened to spend a night in Lowell, Massachusetts, while on a road trip two months ago. Being back in Jack Kerouac's hometown, I seized the opportunity to pick up a copy of his most famous book, ON THE ROAD, for a young co-worker. When I learned that he was only halfway through the book after 6 weeks of reading, I pulled my old copy from the shelf to see if it was more complex than I remembered it being - I hadn't read it since the age of 19 or 20. (*No, it's predominantly high school level writing.) I intended to read but a page or two, but found myself sucked in, and went through the entire book as fast as Dean Moriarty drives through "the fatal red afternoon of Illinois." (For those of you who have never read this cult classic, that translates to 110 mph.)

Ostensibly, the story is an existential look at America played out in the form of multiple cross-country road trips conducted by a variety of "beat" characters or "hipsters" from 1947 to 1950. Of course, it also captures the hedonism of that "Lost Generation." But in a way it also illustrates the development of Jazz in that era - something that escaped my notice when I first read it. When Sal Paradise (Kerouac's first-person narrative voice) undertakes his first trip to the West coast, his plans are all mapped-out, nice and orderly: "I'd been poring over maps of the United States in Paterson for months . . . on the roadmap was one long red line called Route 6 that led from the tip of Cape Cod clear to Ely, Nevada, and there dipped down to Los Angeles. I'll just stay on 6 all the way to Ely, I said to myself and confidently started." [-pg. 10]

It is not long before Sal's plans get scrapped and he's forced to improvise his way West. This mirrors the movement of Jazz at the time. The rigidly structured musical charts (roadmaps) of the Big Bands were gradually giving way to more free-form Jazz, as musicians began to explore greater possibilites within the genre. By the book's conclusion, Sal, Dean, and various hangers-on are blasting through the nights and days in a wild frenzy of (sometimes illogical) driving and drinking, and they are womanizing with reckless abandon. Just as the Jazz musicians had gone to the outermost edge of melody and then abandoned all musical structure with wild flights of fancy – that being the "Bebop" saxophonists and pianists whose musical aspirations were to create wholly personal, improvisational expressions which often became as self-indulgent as the road trips and misadventures of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty. And throughout the story we find the two protagonists in smoke-filled Jazz clubs in the wee hours, nodding their heads, banging on tables and exhorting the players to Go, Cat, go!

And "GOING" in the pursuit of the unnamed "IT" is another major component of the story. "We all realized we were...performing our one and noble function of the time, MOVE. And we moved!" [-pg. 134] "Sal, we gotta go and never stop going till we get there." / "Where we going, man?" / "I don't know but we gotta go." [-pg. 240] "If you go like him all the time you'll finally get it." / "Get what?" / "IT! IT! I'll tell you - now no time, we have no time now." [-pg. 127] "Man, this will finally take us to IT!" said Dean with definite faith. [-pg. 265] But Dean Moriarty never does define "It" because he can't. I believe that Sal Paradise comes as close as they ever get to the object of their quest when on page 147 he relates that "as the river poured down from mid-America by starlight I knew, I knew like mad that everything I had ever known and would ever know was One." But then he gets distracted again by illusory, mirage-like pleasures deceptively promising to lead him to "It", and he subsequently loses the scent in an alcohol haze.

It really doesn't surprise me that the first car I actually loved, I named SAL, after Kerouac's character who was forever on the road. And many aspects of the story call to mind my own LIQUIDATED YOUTH when I cavorted with the spirits in the night (all night, every night) and friends known collectively as THE LEAGUE OF SOUL CRUSADERS, and individually as Napoleon, Cranium, Twinkie, and Pooh. Yours Truly was sometimes referred to as Mr. Intense. And then there was our red-headed unofficial leader, Yoey O'Dogherty, known by the nickname of Torch, who served as our "Dean Moriarty" with his contagious passion for life and his magnificent acts of magic behind the wheel of Tiburon, his 1963 Cadillac. There was virtually NOTHING that Torch couldn't get Tiburon to do (except obey the rules of the road). I caught the essence of The League Of Soul Crusaders in a 1983 poem that concluded with the lines, "Telling jokes and howling / To Nowhere." And that could just as easily describe the exploits of our boys in ON THE ROAD.

By no stretch of the imagination is ON THE ROAD truly great literature. It's one of those books that found its niche by coming along at just the right time with a new "language." What makes it interesting is its ability to convey the unharnessed energy of youth, and to portray an exuberance for experience that resonates with primarily young readers (and old hippies). While there are far better and more important books for you to spend your limited time with (and although I always preferred Kerouac's, 'The Dharma Bums'), ON THE ROAD is a somewhat worthwhile read and I can generally recommend the "trip", though I would caution you against emulating the immoral self-centeredness of its principal characters. (And I can tell you from many years of experience that you're never going to find "It" at insane parties and wild bars, nor while crossing the country at 110 miles per hour in a tequila or chemical-induced stupor.)

They raced madly, wildly, chasing after IT. Looking here, looking there; tracking IT through the loud neon-painted nights and always seemingly one step behind IT. I've got IT now! I can feel the heat of IT, and hear IT breathing. I can sense the powerful presence of IT here. And yet IT is gone again; ever elusive, never materializing. And Sal and Dean never realized that IT dwelled within them. The one place they never thought to look. They toted IT with them in their crazy, frenzied and futile attempts to find IT. And with Kerouac's poor body utterly wasted from drugs and alcohol, he died a sad, bloated death in 1969 at the age of forty-seven, never having located IT. And IT died with him.

~ Stephen T. McCarthy

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