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.