The Book Club

The American Sacrament That Is On the Road

Dear Walter,

I tend to imagine that Jack Kerouac didn’t approve much of literary criticism, avid reader though he was. But I like to think he might have approved of the fact that we’re writing about On the Road here in real time—meaning, yikes, I have about an hour to get my scrambled thoughts down.

So I’ll cut to my confession. I read On the Road—in full—for the first time just last week. I’d tried to read it for years, only to conclude after the first 20 pages that I had more or less “gotten” what there was to get: the energetic onrush of prose, some of it sloppy, some of it quite musical; the self-mythologizing of this group of talented friends, unwilling to conform to the burgeoning Cold War norms of the late 1940s; the relative indifference to the interior lives of women, at least on the page; and the high-octane celebration of American types and pathologies, from Montana cowboys to paroled misfits. Not to mention the waves of authorial charisma that helped keep the kids reading, in the hopes that some of it might rub off on them. These days, On the Road is so firmly lodged in the firmament of American letters—American culture, really—that it’s nearly impossible to get a fix of one’s own on it. It isn’t a book so much as an artifact, a hipster shibboleth dividing the “straight” from the “subterranean,” the “square” from the “Beat.” Over the years, I came to feel about it the way that Grover feels about 1990s Prague in Noah Baumbach’s Kicking and Screaming: You don’t need to have “been to Prague” to have been to Prague.

But now I find that I was wrong about On the Road. You do have to read it from start to finish to understand where its genius lies. This may seem strange, because the novel famously lacks a traditional plot or story arc (which, as several of the participants in our oral history observed, has made it hard to film). The protagonist, Sal Paradise, merely travels back and forth across America and down to Mexico with his sometime-friend Dean Moriarty, in a picaresque search for “kicks” on the open road. But the arc is the act of Sal Paradise’s tracing and retracing his footsteps over what he calls, at the close of the book, “all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast,” and discovering almost unwillingly the changes wrought in him. The result is like a Modernist experiment in repetition crossed with a pioneer travelogue. The radical innovation—and I do think it was radical, however flawed the book itself may be—was that the story doesn’t end when Sal Paradise gets to San Francisco, or even when he gets back to New Jersey to his aunt’s house. It just keeps on going—as he crisscrosses the continent time and again, watching his peers fall apart (Remi Boncouer) or get married, divorced, and remarried (Dean Moriarty) all while witnessing in himself the growth of something that can’t be altered, some hunger that, it becomes apparent, will not be appeased.

I confess, I didn’t much like the book at first; the opening pages seemed callow and I bridled at the way the women are disposed of, as if utterly lacking in intellectual worth. But by the end, I felt the ground had shifted under me; and the terrain I was on was wobblier and stranger than I had expected it to be. When we talk about On the Road today, we tend to exclaim over its sense of headlong movement and the convivial energies of friendship and bebop and excessive consumption (of alcohol, of Benzedrine, of sex, of gasoline) that animate it. But having heard so much about all that, the quality that struck me most was how much anxiety and constraint suffuse the book, too. This isn’t just a jolly quest for “kicks” and beautiful girls and good times to be had at cheap prices. It’s a book about death and the search for something meaningful to hold on to—the famous search for “IT,” a truth larger than the self, which, of course, is never found.

On the Road is saturated in Sal Paradise/Jack Kerouac’s obsession with trying to live in a kind of endless present, a perennial now. And so even the small changes in his outlook are full of import—and I found the trajectory of the book, from melancholic optimism to a kind of apocalyptic pessimism striated with hopefulness, enormously moving. Sal starts off his travels in July of 1947 fearful but optimistic, and at first he experiences nearly everything with a sense of, well, ecstatic transport. Think of those passages early on where he’s in the truck with “Montana Slim” and the other hobo-types hitching a ride out West, looking, almost greedily, at the fields passing by: “Soon I realized I was actually at last over Colorado … looking southwest toward Denver itself a few miles away. I yelled for joy. We passed the bottle. The great blazing stars came out … I felt like an arrow that could shoot all the way.” By the end of the book, on his final trip to Mexico with Dean Moriarty, Sal is enfolded in a more palpable spirit of pessimism; when he looks outward, it’s in a mood of apocalyptic fervor: “At Childress in the hot sun we turned directly south on a lesser road and highballed across abysmal wastes to Paducah, Guthrie, and Abilene … we burned slowly into Abilene and all woke up to look at it.”

Even though On the Road darkens considerably, it never loses that sense of Sal’s wanting to love America. And this was the part that I found the most striking—and perhaps the most poignant. Reading On the Road on its 50th anniversary, I couldn’t help scrutinizing it as an artifact of the great tensions of postwar America, with the behemoth of the Great Depression and the horrors of the death camps and the Atomic Bomb lurking, like a freighter coming over the horizon, at the corner of the eye. The novel was composed the same year that the United States began testing the atom bomb in the Nevada desert. And by the 1950s, when Kerouac was writing On the Road, American artists and intellectuals felt increasingly besieged by the atmosphere of enforced social conformity. As Penny Vlagopoulos reminds us in a preface to On the Road: The Original Scroll, a facsimile edition of the original draft of the novel, the government saw “social harmony” as a key part of the fight against communism. “Marginal” elements like homosexuals—among them Allen Ginsberg, Kerouac’s dear friend—were seen as threatening to national security.

Given that Kerouac, like many artists of the time, felt like one of those marginal elements, On the Road struck me as somewhat remarkable. What Kerouac wrote was not a hysterical denunciation of America but a kind of love letter to it—outraged, at times (I’m thinking of his rants against cops, or the famous line, “Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together”), but also besotted, at others. (I’m thinking of when, having become a security guard himself, he writes about how everyone in America is trying to do the right thing—or of his mouthwatering description of the apple pie and ice cream getting richer and more complex the further West he moves.) For many reasons, not least because we all fly everywhere, or e-mail one another, rather than drive, I don’t think it would be possible for an American writer to write such a book today—so full of unironic celebration of American “types.”

But I’ve gone on too long. The wheel goes to you, Walter. What do you think of all this? To what extent does it strike you as a good novel? What do you make of Kerouac the novelist, rather than Kerouac the personality? Can we ever extricate the two questions from one another?