On the Road

Quote of the Day     “I had nothing to offer anyone except my own confusion.”      –Jack Kerouac

Somebody who sticks the word “travellin” on his name, to say nothing of a person who sets out to be well read, should not go through life without reading “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac. Having just completed it, let me endorse now the reading of it at any age, but by all means before your twenties have flashed by. The book gained fame as the progenitor of the beat generation, but I believe it endures because it identifies the aimless paths and infinite possibilities that life in those years can take. TB’s no book reviewer, nor critical literature thinker. I long ago gave up trying to see what professors and experts tell me is in a book. I’m happy to interpret it on my own terms as it applies to my own experiences. So don’t use this post on a test, it’s just a short essay on what I thought about as I read. And one of those thoughts was that I wish I’d read it ten or twelve years ago.

First, its not what I expected. I knew there was drinking and sex and travellin which were three good reasons to dive in. It was a disappointment to find these vices gave Jack’s alter ego, Sal Paradise, so little real pleasure, and absolutely none for his asshole runnin buddy Dean Moriarty. There are probably tomes in university libraries’ stacks about the meaningfulness of these names, but I’ll simply note the obvious choice of Moriarty as homage to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s character who was the criminal intellectual equal of Sherlock Holmes, one of my favorite duos in all of literature. Moriarty is also the crabby tank crewman in the classic flick, “Kelly’s Heroes” who is often crossways with “Oddball”, the character with much more in common with Kerouac’s Moriarty. But I digress.

On the road starts out with Sal taking off from New York to meet his friend Dean Moriarty in Denver. Sal sets out with a bit of cash, a vague plan, and a romantic fantasy of what lies before him. His entire first day takes him further away from his destination than he started and forces him to spend almost all of his cash. Kerouac thusly warns us from the start, this book may not be full of laughs and sophmoric escapades. In fact, it gradually becomes more cynical, more disappointing and more depressing as the years slip by. But through all of that, Sal seems to grow wiser, more empathetic and more appreciative of the people and places he sees. Through his personal setbacks and even more from watching those around him struggle, Sal comes to know himself and finds acceptance in the world’s imperfection if not his own.

Sal mentions several times that after their time on the road, he realized Moriarty was a rat. It seemed to me he thought nothing of the sort, but rather loved him as a great friend. Moriarty was a guy that almost everyone Sal knew considered a rat, and because nobody knew of the man’s great shortcomings more than Sal, he felt obligated to admit they were right. But in the relating of how he came to know Moriarty was a rat, Sal only tells us about Moriarty’s better qualities along with the personal history and inner demons that forced the ratlike behavior to come to the fore. It is a reminder that to maintain a deep and abiding friendship, it is much more important to overlook one another’s faults than to appreciate the attributes. And that the depth of fallibility can only be revealed to the truest of friends. As the cross-country treks begin and end, Moriarty loses more and more of his sanity, abandons wives and children over and over, and abandons even Sal when he’s most needed. This is what forces Sal to acknowledge he’s a rat, though deep down, he seems to understand and forgive.

The parallel story is about the America that exists on the wrong side of the tracks. Though Sal’s education, upbringing and social circle are decidedly middle class, he becomes fascinated with the hidden society of the poor, especially the blacks and hispanics. He embraces jazz and marijuana to say nothing of as many girls as possible, picked up in the bars, bus stations and all night diners along his way. He lives like many of them do, on short term jobs, mooching off friends, and the occasional petty theft. He cries for their distress, but marvels at their family ties and their little pleasures, and he’s uplifted by their endurance and persistence. Sal’s observations reinforced something I’ve learned sitting across a desk from people at their wits end: most people, especially those with the least going for them, are doing the best they know how to do, and just trying to make their way in the world. 

But Sal only watches. He does nothing to help the people who need it. Of course, there was little to nothing he could do for most of the people he encountered. Maybe he couldn’t even help Moriarty. In the end, they part ways, forever it appears. He turns away from Moriarty, and is wholly justified in doing so. He reclaims his regular life and old academia friends. He settles down. He sits on a pier in sadness and guilt as he thinks of his friend, though he knows his only choice was to escape Moriarty’s ever increasing insanity and self destructiveness.

Kerouac’s talent as a writer is that he conveys so many ideas in so few relative words. A real book review would discuss his style–it’s sort of a stream of conscious meets jazz meets drugs and booze prose. I’ve said nothing about the great early character “Mississippi Gene”, the irony of his companionship and divergent path, and nothing of his descriptions of the American landscape, one of the main reasons I wanted to read the book in the first place. I’ve also not touched on the great topic conveyed in the book but never directly addressed–Sal’s war experiences, their effect on him and the great uncertainty of American life in the early years of the nuclear age. The book only mentions his G.I. check, never how he came to earn it. Finally the book describes in passing the painful birthing process of American culture into the modern world. It’s a book that demands introspection from its readers. I’m glad for the mental and emotional workout, and glad to be past it. I just wish I’d taken it on when I was a bit younger, when the exercise might’ve done me a little more good.

About travellinbaen

I'm a 40 year old lawyer living in Ridgeland, Mississippi. I'm several years and a couple hundred miles removed from most of my old running buddies so I started the blog to provide an outlet for many of the observations and ideas that used to be the subjects of our late night/happy hour/halftime conversations and arguments.
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13 Responses to On the Road

  1. “I just wish I’d taken it on when I was a bit younger, when the exercise might’ve done me a little more good.”
    Now why would you have said that?
    Just curious.
    Great read my friend.
    Glad I found it through tag cloud.
    One thing strikes me though. Why not write about your life. You don’t have to publish it. It would be nice if you did. However the point is you’ll see that your life is a life validated no matter what others say or the story you tell yourself.
    Feel it in the heart.
    Believe it in the mind.
    Then try.
    That’s about the best way I know of to keep on going.
    peace / michael

  2. sweet says:

    Agreed, just f ing write. You love it. have a talent for it. Do it.

  3. Thanks for the encouragement, I need it. The blog is my practice field. If I can get an idea to come together and if I can get satisfied with a style and improve, I hope I will write something with more depth. I still need more practice though. And maybe permission to make characters out of the arb’s.

    Michael, on that sentence, first, your question reminds me I don’t always communicate all that is intended. Many of the ideas and observations I took from the book have come to me independently over the last 8 years or so. I wish I had learned a little of the flexibility and tolerance I have now when I was younger. I also wish I’d had the courage to hit the road for a couple of years when I was in my twenties and broadened my experience base. That’s all it really means.
    I read your thoughts about “serendipitous encounters” and “information serendipity” on your blog. I think the terms are excellent, concise descriptions of how and why we think the way we do.

  4. Jessie Lou says:

    Have you thought about going to any writer’s workshops? I want to say that Gene researched one that was in Oregon at one point and it sounded very interesting.

    You have plenty of material you just need to start. You are very entertaining story teller – even with people that did not know you which is a good sign.

  5. I understand what you are saying. My comment was one of encouragement and believining and trying no matter what: age, circumstances, fear, doubt, etc. There is so much positive energy in you I can feel it. You write with an authentic honest voice and that will always be picked up by readers who “get it.” I want the best for you and really am trying to inspire you to write. I am right where you are and I had hesitated since 1999 to send off my first novel to a major publishing house. I called them and said I want to send it but its the editing that I can’t get. The woman told me that is why they have editors. So send it as a first draft then and we will go from there. Another friend and published poet said,”you got to let go of it and send it out into the world to have a life of its own.” When I finally hit the send button what a relief, and now I get up every day feeling this new freedom to finish off typing up the other books I have written and hit send. It is breaking through that send, which is the most difficult, but the most simple thing to do.
    Keep on going my friend and I will too!!!

  6. OB says:


    Many famous writers, and artists for that matter, never liked or felt confident in the works they created. They just wrote or painted what was on their mind and tried to be themselves and didn’t let somebody else’s opinion tell them what was pretty or not. Many of the masterpieces that have been created were never recognized as great works until the artist was dead.

    I have always had tons of things bottled up inside me and I’ve never known how to put those thoughts on paper. You have a natural instinct to tell a great story, but it appears you’re just sitting and waiting for something to happen. Go ahead and be yourself and let me and other readers be given wonderful treat, and if you do send it to a publisher and they reject it then it is their loss not yours.

  7. Jessie Lou says:

    Also, do not give up at the first rejection. It may take several submissions before you find the right publisher. Many lack the guts to even try for fear of the rejection which only leads to regret – regret of the unknown. At least if you give it your best shot you will know and it will be another experience under your belt.

  8. supercynic says:

    Stephen King once wrote a book, hated it, and threw it away. His wife found it in the trash, loved it, and begged him to try to get it published.

    Now the rest of us are able to enjoy a little book called “Carrie.”

  9. Jeffrey Pillow says:

    ON THE ROAD – excellent book. I’ve read it a half-dozen times.

  10. BR says:


  11. Kozlova says:

    Hi, I just hopped over to your web page thru StumbleUpon. Not smithong I would normally read, but I enjoyed your thoughts none the less. Thank you for creating some thing worth reading.

  12. Mark says:

    Tre8s cher se finit , ne se dit pas et s e9crit encore moins on dit finit en de9bacle ou se tinreme en de9bacle , je sais bien que de nos jours il n y a plus de re8gles quant e0 passe-nt je m interroge bien e0 vous,Muguet.

  13. Earnhardt says:

    Addon states. Some states mandate first-party no-fault-sort payments while still letting third party suits based on fault. If your driving led to their traumas in these states QuotesChimp can obtain recompense from your own insurance company for harms you endure while at the same time being sued by a 3rd party. These are known as addon laws.

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