Because it’s hard for me to summon any more “critical distance” toward On the Road than I can toward the shape of my own face or the smell of my own sweat, I can’t imagine what it must have been like to read the book for the first time as a literate, alert, discerning grown-up who understands how novels work in general and how this one (which, for me, at least, isn’t even a novel anymore, but something that feels more natural and less “made,” like a place or a human body or a mood) operates in particular.
What I’m saying, I guess, is the best that I can do here is describe what happens to me—neurologically, intellectually, and (per its author’s intentions) spiritually—each time the book comes over me again. By this, I don’t mean each time I “reread” it. Rereading is a willful act, but my ongoing encounters with On the Road (and those of the hundreds of thousands of other people who’ve kept the book in print these 50 years) occur in a realm beyond the will, out in that astral night realm of pure being that Kerouac was ambitious enough to think he could bring into existence through his own will. He wasn’t a fool, though. He knew he couldn’t dwell there. Not for more than an hour at a jazz show. Not for longer than it takes to drive from California to Colorado. Not for more than the three weeks at his desk that it took to finish a story that he’d been revising for several years (and not merely revising but re-envisioning) but ultimately gave up on and just wrote.
And what he produced, whenever I revisit it, leads me to do the following.
First, I mourn.
I mourn for the whole doomed enterprise and for the ideas, so dated now, so dead, that convinced its author it was possible.
I mourn the idea that America could be healed not through the calibration and adjustment of competing interests and group identities—through lobbying, lawyering, and legislating—but through participation in a great ecstasy. (One modeled, perhaps, on the compassionate mania of On the Road’s Dean Moriarty, “who not only understood but cared and wanted to understand more and much more than there was … “)
I mourn the idea that the geographical is personal and that rivers and plains and cityscapes—and even place names, in some mysterious way—aren’t interchangeable backdrops to our lives but fundamental sources of our fates. (“Reno, Battle Mountain, Elko, all the towns along the Nevada road shot by one after another, and at dusk we were in the Salt Lake flats with the lights of Salt Lake City infinitesimally glimmering. … “)
I mourn the idea that a novelist needn’t promise us any more than this: You need to hear this because I need to tell you, and the reason I need to tell you is that it happened, because if a thing can happen it must mean something—or else nothing means anything, which is highly possible. (“It was just a sad old brown Frisco hotel.”)
And then I stop mourning Kerouac’s antique ideas—about people, places, things, and words and about how they related to one another and sprung from the same ethereal material—and I start to envy the narrative opportunities afforded to him by a certain time and place that felt so important, so sacred, so eternal, because there was a Bomb out there that could make it vanish instantly.
The opportunity to describe a music (the bebop jazz of transient little clubs) whose nuances had seldom been verbalized.
The opportunity to speak of mental states (brought on by marijuana, say, or Benzedrine) that hadn’t been easy to attain before.
The opportunity to synch up with machines (the powerful postwar American sedans) whose capabilities were new on earth.
And, finally, the opportunity (which I find most enviable of all, in this time of electronic connectivity and online social networking) to feel so isolated and cut off because of one’s bad habits, one’s crazy friends, and one’s utter disinterest in commerce and mass culture that one could perceive “society” as something entirely alien and separate—something that one could behold from the outside instead of forever consuming and being consumed by.
None of these responses to On the Road amount to criticism or analysis. The most I could ever do in that regard was to write a novel called Up in the Air about a character with Kerouac’s restlessness who covered much the same territory as he did but traveled in jets, at 30,000 feet, where a sense of autonomy is impossible, where landscapes are blurs obscured by clouds, and where encounters with other people are brief, superficial, and, of course, unnecessary. While writing the book, I liked to think that Kerouac foresaw this disembodied America and that this vision made his project urgent and may have even accounted for On the Road’s peculiar tone of premature nostalgia.
When the book first came out, it struck the public as up-to-the-minute cultural reportage, a portrait of a rising generation, but it was really an elegy. It mourned a world that Kerouac missed as much as I miss his (or my romantic conception of it, at least). He wanted to be a pioneer. Too late. (The trails had all been paved.) He wanted to drift like a hobo. Too well-schooled. (He’d gone to Columbia University, remember.) But mostly he wanted to feel as Whitman had, to know that same brotherly, classless solidarity with men of all trades and locales and dispositions. Too modern and self-conscious. (Whitmanesque brotherliness, by Kerouac’s time, had been reduced by the psychologists to a form of latent homosexuality.) There was so much he wanted to do and couldn’t do, including writing the Great American Novel, which he’d tried in his first book, The Town and the City, and knew better than to attempt with On the Road.
Which may be why he almost succeeded. And is certainly why we’re still reading the novel now. Because nothing like it feels possible today. Nor did it feel possible then. Except to Kerouac.
Who traveled through space as a way to travel through time.