Sometimes there are books you should read at certain ages. On the Road is a book that should be read by those in their teens or early twenties, particularly as a follow up to Catcher in the Rye. I’m into my 30s now yet have only just got round to reading it. I have been vaguely aware of something known as the ‘beat generation’ and have an idea of what it is, though it’s more of a feeling that a precise description. But it’s a generation which Kerouac sits in the middle of and which this book went some way to define.
Told in the first person from the perspective of Sal Paradise, we travel across America several times with a raggedy bunch of friends, stopping over at times in San Francisco, Denver and New York, amongst other places. His most regular companion is Dean Moriarty. If you read around the book you can quickly find that Kerouac modelled his characters very closely on his friends, with Sal Paradise being little more than a non-de-plume for Kerouac himself.
From the start of the novel and pretty much throughout, the thing that struck me was the rhythm of the prose. Normally, unless a book is written phonetically (e.g. the dialogue in Under The Greenwood Tree) I tend to read with my own as the narrator; my own inner monologue. But reading this, I couldn’t do that. I was sucked into thinking in an American accent, very reminiscent of film noirs where the hero would do a voice over while they drive a car with exaggerated hand movements that would normally render their driving unsafe.
Yet whilst having that image in my head, I also had the impression that it was written out quite quickly, with Kerouac being hunched over a typewriter, in a grubby white shirt with his sleeves rolled up, no tie and cigarette hanging out of his mouth, bashing away at the keys along with the rapid rhythm of his soul.
One could barely say the book has a plot. Or if it does, it is little more than: Group of people travel around and a few things happen to them. But that would do injustice to the book. It has a great heart to it and it gives an impression upon the reader. Seeing the world through Sal’s eyes, friends drift in and out and are valued in the time we spend with them, but it is no great loss to move on to the next city.
Sal’s main travelling companion, Dean, is something of a wild one. To me, the difference between them is the heart of the book which has to be understood in its time and in its place. Written in the 1950s, portraying life in America in the 1940s, this a post-war generation. It is a story of a group of people, seemingly fatherless, who are trying to express their freedom at the dawn of a new age whilst haunted by the memory (rarely mentioned explicitly) of the second world war. This is the “beat generation”. They are beat-up because of the time in history in which they live, they are upbeat because of the hope for the future and they are dancing to the beat of the jazz clubs.
All these factors tug in different directions. And no one is more torn than Dean. At first he comes across as a free spirit, but as the book progresses we see beneath his youthful enthusiasm for the zest of life and we see that he cares little for other people; life is just there for kicks. I got the impression that Kerouac wanted to be Sal, but that he felt he might be Dean, using the book to test the waters to see which he was most like and where their roads may lead. Ultimately, Kerouac’s early death may indicate that this is a prophetic book.
However you read it, it will leave a sense of something lingering with you. How you describe that, might it be the beat? Might it be jazz? Might it be youth? Or is it as Dean refers to it, as IT.