The Book Club

Masterpiece or Masturbation?

Dear Meghan,

That “God is pooh bear” nonsense in the novel’s closing rhapsody is as ugly a pimple on the ass as can be found in a famous American book. I wince every time I read it, a full-brain wince, and I try to excuse it as a case of Kerouac’s love of rhythm and momentum getting the best of his tonal sensibilities. When your prose is like a rushing tide, a lot of trash gets swept onto the beach, as happens repeatedly in On the Road. To learn that the “pooh” thing was an insert, though, consciously added during the editing process, makes me think that Kerouac’s fabled trance states served to protect his writing from a mind that, when operating normally, could be extremely dense. To get up off the ground and fly, it seems, he had to achieve a certain minimum airspeed that would make his slip-ups feel like inevitable bursts of minor turbulence. When the guy cut his engines, though, he crashed sometimes. This time into the Hundred Acre Wood.

Which is why it’s no wonder that On the Road, a book that we’ve termed an American Sacrament, is almost as widely and passionately viewed as an American Sham. This started around the time the novel was published, when Truman Capote insulted Kerouac’s prose as “typing not writing,” and has continued until this afternoon, as shown by the profusion of readers’ spitballs aimed at our rather reverent discussion here. (One of these can be found under the heading “Kerouac’s 50 years of Crap,” and it’s not even the unkindest.)  Would the novel have been better as a memoir, you asked in your last note. Don’t know. What I do know is that there are countless detractors out there who don’t regard it as a novel at all but as a load of pretentious mental slobber. It might or might not reflect true-life events, but it’s still, to the skeptics, a bucket of foamy word-slop that, for some devious or self-seeking reason (canny marketing by its publishers? The doltishness of our nation’s youth? The narcissism of baby boomers who see the novel as their own creation myth?) has been borne along like a chalice all these years and deserves, at long last, to be tossed back into the gutter where its shiftless characters so often slept.

Yet the novel lives on, still selling, still being read, and one of the reasons for this, in my opinion, is that its status remains so deeply unsettled. Masterpiece or masturbation? Only we, the audience, can judge. And that makes us, the audience, feel powerful. To read and react to On the Road is to be endowed with the authority, the cultural responsibility, of a critic or a curator—and also to enter a great argument that’s not just about the value of one novel but the problems of individual moral liberty, the role of intoxicants and excess as aids to human creativity, the competition in all art between self-expression and self-restraint, and the question of whether it’s better for the soul to burn and explode like a lonely “roman candle,” as Kerouac advocated, or live at a sustainable low simmer, as your parents and pastor and doctor recommend.

On the Road is a book that can still start fights, I’m saying, and keep fights going strong—including the fight over whether its paragraphs are filled with junk or genius.

A mixture of both, I’d say, and a mixture that no amount of stirring or straining can easily blend smooth. This makes it a perfect mixture, for my purposes. My purposes being that we keep on arguing about all the topics I just mentioned and hundreds of other ones—and that these arguments start, whenever possible (I hope, because I’m a writer myself) with books.

But back to particulars, Meghan. I agree with you that the episode in which Sal Paradise picks up the Mexican girl and tries to live with her—and also with her friends and family who work as agricultural migrant laborers in California’s scorching Central Valley—is the novel’s richest, most satisfying section and perhaps even the key to its real theme. Yes, On the Road is American literature’s most euphoric celebration of young male friendship, and yes, it’s what pundits style an “indictment” of the listless life of petty anxiety that kills the soul but nourishes the “system,’ but it’s also, I think, the story of an attempt by certain sensitive Americans to disenfranchise themselves and live like Mexicans, like second-class citizens in their own country, free of the burdens faced by first-class citizens, such as the heavy illusion that they own the place.

That sounds awkward, perhaps—simplistic, crude, inelegant—but I think it’s the plain truth. With his attention to physical landscapes, his attraction to humble outcasts, his immersion in lowly occupations, and his enthusiasm for any experience which fostered communion and self-forgetting (listening to jazz in crowded clubs, riding along with friends in cars, drinking or getting high with strangers), Kerouac was trying to fashion, in his way (and not just for himself), a spacious new continental identity transcending political and commercial borders.  This thing we call a nation, he suggested, was in fact a land, and the enterprises called “good citizenship” or “doing right” or “making a career” were really just fragile, compulsive overlays on the sturdy old business known as “living.” We’d forgotten some things, the novel suggests, that our happiness—and perhaps our very survival in an age of big weapons, big business, and big ideas—depended on us remembering and recommitting to.

This land is your land. We the people.  Hard work is honest work. Love thy neighbor. That stuff. 

Kerouac’s cross-country adventures were an effort to mingle with those who lived these principles, these pre-Constitution mandates of the spirit, and to learn to live them more perfectly himself from whomever seemed able to teach him, be he Dean Moriarty, the motormouth con man, some perspiring black horn player in San Francisco, some shy young cutie on a bus, or the Mexican California field workers whose sense of this continent where we all abide—composed of soil and rock and water, made habitable through toil, surrounded by oceans, spanned by roads, and watched over (one would like to hope) by gods—was neither American nor un-American but broader and older than those tiny notions and—Kerouac knew—more likely to endure.

Endurance—not excitement, not kicks, not thrills (which are merely flashes of the deep energies that make endurance possible)—was Kerouac’s great theme as a writer.

And also his fate.