Thursday, May 10, 2012

In Defense of the Books You Hate: On the Road

I’ve had some fun at Jack Kerouac’s expense here and here, but I have to admit I’d never actually read the man until this past week. The Subterraneans  has been sitting on my shelf, unread, for about 10 years because I’ve always wanted to make that first Kerouac plunge with On the Road.  With the film adaptation of the book coming out this month, I finally got my hands on a copy. Still, the mild curiosity I’ve always held about On the Road  was balanced by a healthy dose of skepticism about a book that seems to inspire more scoffing than praise these days.

Truman Capote once panned Kerouac’s ‘spontaneous prose’ by saying, “It isn’t writing at all-it’s typing.” John Updike famously parodied On the Road  in a New Yorker  hit piece called “On the Sidewalk,” in which two kids on a tricycle and a scooter ride off “into the wide shimmering pavement” through a bed of irises. At the end of the story it is revealed that the childish main character is actually 39- right about Kerouac’s age at the time. Updike’s lambast even got a mention in Kerouac’s New York Times obituary.

But more striking to me than either of these criticisms is the literatti’s collective dismissal of On the Road  as a childish romp fit only for the trash heap- the same one where they’ve thrown their old copies of Catcher in the Rye  and Atlas Shrugged  and any other books that tend to cast a spell on the under-twenty crowd. In their wisdom and erudition, they prove that they've outgrown the aimless, childish exuberance of On the Road  by smiling quaintly at anyone who sees it for more than a youngster’s literary rite of passage.

What a crock. This is a book that left me absolutely buzzing- and I say that as a pretty conservative 34-year-old father of three. Let’s tackle the writing first. I don’t know that I’ve ever read a book with such a palpable current to it. I don’t mean to say it’s a page-turner that will keep you up all night, yet each time you wade in, you find yourself swept away in  Kerouac’s captivating river of prose.

His vivid descriptions force the reader to step back and look at things in new and unexpected ways. Instead of putting his finger on Hemingway’s ‘mot juste-’ the one, true word that perfectly describes the situation at hand, Kerouac just hurls a bunch of them at you, each with its own angle, its own color, and its own flavor. So, for example, a simple phrase like “sad characters” becomes “poignant California characters with their end-of-the-continent sadness.” Pretty great, right? To me, this style is not flighty or reckless- it’s like gazing through an ever-changing kaleidoscope. And it's downright mesmerizing.

But how about the story? Isn’t it just a loser’s travel log? A bum’s manifesto? Or a hap-hazard, hedonistic attack on American social norms? If you choose to look at it that way, I guess it is. In his New York Times review, David Dempsey wrote: 
“As a portrait of a disjointed segment of society acting out of its own neurotic necessity, On the Road,  is a stunning achievement. But it is a road, as far as the characters are concerned, that leads to nowhere.”
I think he’s right, actually.  But I think that’s the whole point. The book is infused with an emptiness and a sadness that seems to come to a crescendo at the end. Despite Sal’s book-length fixation on Dean (or Kerouac’s lifelong fixation on Neal Cassady, on whom Dean was based), I read On the Road  to be a pretty pointed criticism, at least in part, of Dean’s manic search for ‘IT’ that left friendships, marriages and even children in its ruinous wake. 

And that’s not an accidental message. He foreshadows it in the first few pages, builds on it with MaryLou’s, Camille’s and Inez’s experience, and ends the book with his own abandonment, delirious and sick, in Mexico. That, to me, is what makes On the Road  so much more than a bohemian travel log. It’s equal parts documentation, celebration, and condemnation of the sometimes misguided rebellion of Kerouac’s generation.

At the end of the day, appreciating On the Road  doesn’t make you a shiftless beat generation wannabe, any more than appreciating Lolita  makes you a warped child molester. Read it for what it is, and by all means enjoy the ride.


  1. Amen and Amen.

    I am going to make some statements here that will make my colleagues cringe (Jed, Jonas, Lyman, Tim, I'm talking about you).

    I first read On The Road in my early twenties while travelling in Chile. I didn't "save" the novel for that time in my life, but rather, it was just a coincidence that I read it in Chile.

    To this day, I will confidently state that no piece of literature has since kicked me in the balls quite like this novel. And it's not the story that does the kicking, it's the writing. It's Kerouac's ability to throw very "un-subtle" whomping phrases onto the page. And, it's the philosophical undercurrent throughout the whole book which asks the question: "What are we DOING? What are we LOOKING FOR?" It's universal.

    But, ten years after my Chile trip, after enduring endless ridicule from my friends for my love of On The Road, I began having doubts as to the beauty of the novel. I began to entertain the notion that I had simply read On The Road "at the right time (early 20's) and the right place (on an international trip)." So to test the timelessness of the novel, I re-read it in my early 30's.

    Verdict: I loved it just as much in my early 30's. The prose is unmatched, in my opinion. Spontaneous. Colorful. With Edge. It's not a "perfect" novel, but what is? (Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man? Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha . . . sigh . . . ha ha ha ha).

    I've loved a lot of literature in the last 15 years (Hemingway!), but no single novel matches the affinity I feel toward On The Road.

    There, I am out. Out of the On The Road Closet (which my dirtbag friends have locked me in for years).

    It's an imperfect masterpiece, even if it's unpopular to say.

    Deal with it.

    1. The tag-team review. I love it.

      Glad to have your full-throated agreement, Tucker.