So after letting it languish on my shelf for years, I finally tackled this…
And I’m so glad I did, despite my conflicting feelings.
Though Jack Kerouac began thinking about the novel that was to become On the Road as early as 1947, it was not until three weeks in April 1951, in an apartment on West Twentieth Street in Manhattan, that he wrote the first full draft that was satisfactory to him. Typed out as one long, single-spaced paragraph on eight long sheets of tracing paper that he later taped together to form a 120 foot scroll, this document is among the most significant, celebrated, and provocative artifacts in contemporary American literary history. It represents the first full expression of Kerouac’s revolutionary aesthetic, the identifiable point at which his thematic vision and narrative voice came together in a sustained burst of creative energy. It was also part of a wider vital experimentation in the American literary, musical, and visual arts in the post-World War II period.
So this book is like one giant run-on sentence. It’s the unedited first draft of On The Road. No paragraph breaks, no chapter breaks, questionable punctuation. You can see why it took me some time to get through. It also uses real names, not aliases–Dean Moriarty is really Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg is Allen Ginsberg, etc.
First, the good:
This book is so romantic. How could it not be? It’s young people take off on the road with no real plans, living fully in the moment, having adventure after adventure. It’s enough to make you ache with wanderlust.
There was nowhere to go but everywhere, so just keep on rolling under the stars.
Our battered suitcases were piled on the sidewalk again; we had longer ways to go. But no matter, the road is life.
It was also so evocative of the time, and of this country: America. It was just so real:
I realized these were all the snapshots which our children would look at someday with wonder, thinking their parents had lived smooth, well-ordered lives and got up in the morning to walk proudly on the sidewalks of life, never dreaming the raggedy madness and riot of our actual lives, our actual night, the hell of it, the senseless emptiness.
Reading sentences like this I get this weird nostalgia for an era I was not even close to being a part of, but I feel like I remember it anyway. It makes me think reincarnation must be real, that I’m catching bits of memories from my past life. And maybe I was there.
Another inarguable asset to this book: Kerouac is an impressive word-spinner. Some of these sentences just slay me. I’m even more impressed knowing these were all part of a first draft.
Soon it got dusk, a grapy dusk, a purple dusk over tangerine groves and long melon fields; the sun the color of pressed grapes, slashed with burgandy red, the fields the color of love and Spanish mysteries.
…because the only people that interest me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing… but burn, burn, burn like roman candles across the night.
Now, the negative…
This novel could have benefited from paragraph breaks and more punctuation. There’s a reason most first drafts don’t get published. But I get why this was important to publish in its original form–there’s something so exciting in the frenetic pace of the prose–and I did choose to read this over the edited version, so that’s my own fault.
The main issue with this novel is the characters.
They were not very good people.
First there’s Neal Cassady, alias Dean Moriarty, the Gatsby to Kerouac’s Nick. He sleeps with whomever he wants, whenever he wants, regardless if he has a wife or some children somewhere across the country waiting for him to come home. He steals cars, among other things–they all do–and is pretty much overall a plight on humanity.
You have absolutely no regard but for yourself and your damned kicks. All you think about is what’s hanging between your legs and how much money or fun you can get out of people and then you just throw them aside. Not only that but you’re silly about it. It never occurs to you that life is serious and that there are people trying to make something decent out of it instead of just goofing all the time.
That’s most of Kerouac’s friends in a nutshell, but especially Neal Cassady.
It’s hard to empathize with people like that when they run out of money, go hungry, etc. because they bring it, and worse, on themselves.
I mean, I get it. I get those days of being young and wanting to feel alive all of the time instead of just some of the time, and needing to throw off convention and the adult world and just drink and smoke and laugh all the time. More than anything this novel reminded me of the summers when I was in college, where I spent my time in a constant cloud of friends and alcohol and smoke, drinking and laughing away the night and sleeping away half the next day. I loved those days, and I miss them–but I confined them to just a few summers of my life. And I didn’t cheat on anyone or steal from anyone while I did it.
But then, on the flip side of this, Kerouac’s love for Neal, despite his many, many faults, comes across as very genuine. At first it’s like a hero’s worship, but the more you read, the more you realize how much he cares for his friend. And there’s something quite touching about that.
I really loved this book and at the same time I was really appalled by some of the things these characters did. I don’t know if knowing it was all real makes me love it more or less. These people actually did these things, but then again–these people actually did these things.
But I encourage you to read it and form your own opinions.
So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, and all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars’ll be out, and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear? the evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all the rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Neal Cassady, I even think of Old Neal Cassady the father we never found, I think of Neal Cassady.
Images found here, from the movie, which was actually pretty great and very true to the novel