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On the Road by Jack Kerouac


In its time Jack Kerouac’s masterpiece was the bible of the Beat Generation, the essential prose accompaniment to Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. While it stunned the public and literary establishment when it was published in 1957, it is now recognized as an American classic. With On the Road, Kerouac discovered his voice and his true subject—the search for a place as an outsider in America. On the Road swings to the rhythms of fifties underground America, jazz, sex, generosity, chill dawns, and drugs, with Sal Paradise and his hero Dean Moriarty, traveler and mystic, the living epitome of Beat.

“Life is great, and few can put the zest and wonder and sadness and humor of it on paper more interestingly than Kerouac.”
—Luther Nichols, San Francisco Examiner

“Just as, more than any other novel of the Twenties, The Sun Also Rises came to be regarded as the testament of the Lost Generation, so it seems certain that On the Road will come to be known as that of the Beat Generation.”
—Gilbert Millstein, The New York Times


The characters in this story travel down winding roads, Journeys, adventures living life through dark and ecstasy filled minutes of time. Ultimately this journey for a group of artists was to put them through a process of exhaustion, of which when they come through it, could gain them with some inspiration, reflectiveness and spiritual strength. A writer on the road who wanted his vocabulary to grow and his inspiration broaden.

This story was lived in real time by Jack Kerouac named as Sal in this novel, he traveled those trips, hitchhiked, drank, drugged and was short of a buck he lived in a bohemian and at times hedonistic way on the road following Dean Moriarty paths. Dean could be viewed as possibly Sal’s/Kerouac’s alter-ego. When pondering over the companionship of Sal and Dean I remember of two characters from Fight Club yes a different story but a mans alternate “American Dream” stories that had both a profound effect on their generations.

The story started off with shorter sentences in a travelogue style but as the time on the road lengthened so did the quality and length of prose was much greater, reflective and meaningful which would outweigh in time the endless pursuits of temporary junk that came to fruition a cleansed and a better man in the story.

The main protagonist was an artist in the pursuit of something greater, did he ultimately gain it?


“Then came spring, the great time of traveling, and everybody in the scattered gang was getting ready to take one trip or another. I was busily at work on my novel and when I came to the halfway mark, after a trip down south with my aunt to visit my brother Rocco, I got ready to travel at for the very first time.”

“Now I could see Denver looming ahead of me like the promised land, way out there beneath the stars, a across the prairie of Iowa and the plains of Nebraska, and could see the greater vision of San Francisco beyond, like jewels in the night.”

“With the flashlight to illuminate my way, I climbed the steep walls of the south canyon, got up on the highway streaming with cars frisco-bound in the night, scrambled down the other side, almost falling, and came to the bottom of a ravine where a little farmhouse stood near a creek and where very blessed night the same dog barked at me. Then it was a fast walk along a silvery, dusty road beneath inky trees of California – a road like in The Mask of Zorro and a road like all roads you see in Western B movies. I used to take out my gun and play cowboys in the dark.”

“So I stayed another day. It was Sunday. A great heat wave descended; it was a beautiful day, the sun turned red at three. I started up the mountain and got to the top at four. All those lovely California cottonwoods and eucalypti brooded on all sides. Near a peak there were no more trees, just rocks and grass. Cattle were grazing on the top of the coast. There was the Pacific, a few more foothills away, blue and vast and with a Great wall of white advancing from the legendary potato patch where Frisco fogs are born. Another hour and it would come streaming through the Golden Gate to shroud the romantic city in white, and a young man would hold his girl by the hand and climb slowly up a long white sidewalk with a bottle of Tokay in his pocket. That was Frisco; and beautiful women standing in white doorways, waiting for their men; and Coit Tower, and the Embarcadero, and Market Street, and the eleven teeming hills.”

“Suddenly I found myself on Times Square. I had traveled eight thousand miles around he American continent and i was back on Times Square; and right in the middle of a rush hour, too, seeing with my innocent road-eyes the absolute madness and fantastic hoorair of New York with its millions and millions hustling forever for a buck among themselves, the mad dream – grabbing, taking, giving, sighing,dying just so they could be buried in hose awful cemetery cities beyond Long Island city. The high towers of the land – the other end of the land, the place where Papa America is born.”

“Something someone, some spirit was pursuing all of us across the desert of life and was bound to catch us before we reached heaven. Naturally, now that I look back on it, this is only death: death will overtake us before heaven. The one thing that we yearn for in our living days, that makes us sigh and groan and undergo sweet nauseas of all kinds, is the remembrance of some lost bliss that was probably experienced in the womb and can only be reproduced (though we hate to admit it) in death. But who wants to die?
In the rush of events I kept thinking about this in the back of my head. I told it to Dean and he instantly recognized it as the mere simple longing for pure death; and because we’re all of us never in life again, he, rightly, would have nothing to do with it, and I agreed with him then.”

“I could hear Dean, blissful and blabbering and frantically rocking. Only a guy who’s spent five years in jail can go to such maniacal helpless extremes; beseeching at the portals of the soft source, mad with a completely physical realisation of the origins of life-bliss; blindly seeking to return the way he came. This is the result of years looking at sexy pictures behind bars; looking at legs and breasts of women in popular magazines; evaluating the hardness of steel halls and the softness of the woman who is not there. Prison is where you promise yourself the right to live. Dean had never seen his mother’s face. Every new girl, every new wife, every new child was an addition to his bleak impoverishment, where was his father? – old bum Dean Moriarty the Tinsmith, riding freights, working as a scullion in railroad cookshacks, stumbling, down-crashing in wino alley nights, expiring on coal piles, dropping his yellowed teeth one by one in the gutters of the west. Dean had every right to die the sweet deaths of complete love of his Marylou. I didn’t want to interfere, I just wanted to FOLLOW.”

“And for just a moment I had reached the point of ecstasy that I always wanted to reach, which was the complete step across chronological time into timeless shadows, and wonderment in the bleakness of the mortal realm, and the sensation of death kicking at my heels to move on, with a phantom digging its own heels, and myself hurrying to a plank where all the angles dove off and flew into the holy void of uncreated emptiness, the potent and inconceivable radiancies shining in bright Mind Essence, innumerable lotus-lands falling open in the magic mothswarm of heaven. I could hear an indescribable seething roar which wasn’t in my ear but everywhere and had nothing to do with sounds. I realised 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 realised it was only because of the stability of the intrinsic Mind that these ripples of birth and death took place, like the action of window a sheet of pure, serene, mirror-like water. I felt sweet, swinging, bliss, like a big shot of heroine in the mainline vein; like a gulp of wine late in the afternoon and it makes you shudder; my feet tingled. I thought I was going to die that very moment. But I didn’t die, and walked four miles and picked up ten long butts and took them back to Marylou’s hotel room and poured their tobacco in my old pipe and lit up.”

I read a great introduction written by Ann Charters Professor of English at the University of Connecticut in the penguin classic edition and I felt she really hits home to what the story what about and i have selected paragraphs of it:

“Interviewers weren’t interested in ‘Sal Paradise’ or in Kerouac’s life as a writer between his trips on the road. They put down their pencils when he told them he came from a French-Canadian family; they turned a deaf ear when he said that he loved America because it had opened its doors to his immigrant parents; they thought he was kidding when he tried to explain that he wasn’t ‘beat’ but a ‘strange solitary crazy Catholic mystic,’ and that he wouldn’t have been able to write as much as he did if he didn’t live ‘a kind of monastic life’ at home with his mother most of the time. None of this sounded as exciting as Moriarty’s exuberant personality or the emergence of a Beat Generation. Yet what the publication of On the Road signified was much more enduring than newspaper headlines. Years after Kerouac had struggled to find a personal voice, he had finally been heard.”

“Writing On the Road, Kerouac finally found his own voice and his true subject – the story of his own search for a place as an outsider in America. His books are based on what happened to him and his friends, but they are a brilliant blend of fiction and autobiography, not because Kerouac made up characters or events but because his point of view as the narrator of his life story was so emotionally charged that he made all the characters and events a reflection of his own feelings. Dean was Sal’s brother, buddy and ‘alter ego,’ a larger-than-life projection of Kerouac’s heightened expectation of what life could offer.”

“On the Road can be read as a quest taken by Sal Paradise, who sets out to test the American dream by trying to pin down its promise of unlimited freedom by following the example of Dean Moriarty. Dean is the dream’s reality. On the margins of society, he has no illusions about the end of the road. Envisioning it, he tells the credulous Sal that ‘You spend a whole life of non-interference with the wishes of others… and nobody bothers you and you cut along and make it your own way… What’s your road, man? – holyboy road, madman road, rainbow road, guppy road, any road. It’s an anywhere road for anybody anyhow. Where body how?’ For Sal Paradise, his friend Moriarty is ‘Beat – the road, the soul of Beatific,’ in possession of the key to unlock the door to the mysterious possibilities and richness of experience itself.”

” Challenging the complacency and prosperity of postwar America hadn’t been Kerouac’s intent when he wrote his novel, but he had created a book that heralded a change of consciousness in the country. As William Burroughs realized, after 1957 On the Road sold a trillion levis and a million espresso coffee machines, and also sent countless kids on the road. This was of course due in part to the media, the arch-opportunists. They know a story when they see one, and the Beat movement was a story, and a big one … The Beat literary movement came at exactly the right time and said something that millions of people of all nationalities all over the world were waiting to hear. You can’t tell anybody anything he doesn’t know already.
The alienation, the restlessness, the dissatisfaction were already there waiting when Kerouac pointed out the road.’ “

“Kerouac was never able to convince his critics that the Beat Generation was ‘basically a religious generation,’ but his friend Holmes understood that the characters in On the Road were actually ‘on a quest, and that the specific object of their quest was spiritual. Though they rushed back and forth across the country on the slightest pretext, gathering kicks along the way, their real journey was inward; and if they seemed to trespass most boundaries, legal and moral, it was only in the hope of finding a belief on the other side.’ On the Road can be read as an American classic along with Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby as a novel that explores the theme of personal freedom and challenges the promise of the ‘American dream.’ “


Reviewed by Lou Pendergrast on 13 October 2012

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