On the Road

Review From User :

Kerouac's masterpiece breathes youth and vigor for the duration and created the American bohemian "beat" lifestyle which has been the subject of innumerable subsequent books, songs, and movies. I have read this at least two or three times and always feel a bit breathless and invigorated because of the restlessness of the text and the vibrance of the characters. There was an extraordinary exhibit at the Pompidou Center earlier this year where the original draft in Kerouac's handwriting was laid out end to end in a glass case. It was like seeing the original copy of Don Quixote in the royal palace in Madrid - very moving. In any case, there is no excuse not to read this wonderful high point of mid-20th century American literature.

Re-read and found both beauty and sadness in this work. The sadness stems from the sexism, racism, and homophobia expressed throughout the book. Sign of the times, I know, but it is still painful to see that these Beat visionaries - for all their open-mindedness towards other religions and sex and drugs - still expressed such backwards views and attitudes sometimes

As for the beauty, the story of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty crossing the US again and again with a last trip down to Mexico City is epic.

"I pictured myself in a Denver bar that night, with all the gang, and in their eyes I would be strange and ragged and like the Prophet who has walked across the land to bring the dark Word, and the only Word I had was "Wow!" (P. 37)

I have driven from Florida to San Francisco by myself and back again when I was in college and felt that Kerouac captured the enthusiasm that the memory still evokes in me:

"I thought, and looked every, as I had looked everywhere in the little world below. And before me was the great raw bulge and bulk of my American continent" (P. 79)

The descriptions of bebop jazz are absolutely astounding throughout as they listen to Prez, Bird, Dizzy...
"The pianist was only pounding the keys with spread-eagled fingers, chords, or at intervals when the great tenorman was drawing breath for another blast--Chinese chords, shuddering the piano in every timber, chink, and wire, boing!" (P. 197)

The writing makes you feel the musics energy pulsating and driving - that is one of my favorite aspects of On the Road:

"Holy flowers floating in the air, were all these tired forms in the dawn of Jazz America." (P. 204)

Other moments are surreal and yet moments I have known many times:

"Just about that time a strange thing began to haunt me. It was this: I had forgotten something. There was a decision that I was about to make before Dean showed up, and now it was driven clear out of my mind but still hung on the tip of my mind's tongue." (P. 124)

Or the feeling of mystery:

"This was a manuscript of the night that we couldn't read." (P. 158) and those that do not share their trip on the road "they stand uncertainly underneath immense skies, and everything about them is drowned." (P. 167)

I perhaps just ignored it in my previous readings, but this time I was struck by the heroin references. Old Bill was off in the bathroom tying up and yet taking care of his kids (alarming!)

Perhaps the predominant mood and attitude of the book and Kerouac's view of the period is summarized on Sal's 3rd trip to San Francisco:

"I realized that I had died and been reborn numberless times but just didn't remember especially because the transitions from life to death and back to life are so ghostly easy, a magical action for naught, like falling asleep and waking up again a million times, the utter casualness and deep ignorance of it. I realized it was only because of the stability of the intrinsic Mind that these ripples of birth and death took place, like the action of wind on a sheet of pure, serene, mirror-like water. I felt a sweet, swinging bliss like a big shot of heroin in the mainline vein; like a gulp of wine late in the afternoon and it makes you shudder; my feet tingled." (P. 173)

Kerouac captured the spirit of the Beats who would later become the hippies of the 60's (but without the Vietnam War) in both its glory and its squalor. The book is both beautiful and uplifting and desperate and depressing. Regardless of how one reacts to it, it is truly one of the great works of the expression of the American spirit in the post-WWII period.

On the Road chronicles Jack Kerouac’s years traveling the North American continent with his friend Neal Cassady, “a sideburned hero of the snowy West.” As “Sal Paradise” and “Dean Moriarty,” the two roam the country in a quest for self-knowledge and experience. Kerouac’s love of America, his compassion for humanity, and his sense of language as jazz combine to make On the Road an inspirational work of lasting importance.

Kerouac’s classic novel of freedom and longing defined what it meant to be “Beat” and has inspired every generation since its initial publication more than forty years ago.

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