I just finished the book On the Road by Jack Kerouac. Whether you’ve read it or you haven’t, you probably have heard that it is the anthem of the “beat generation” of the 50’s. And it’s true; this book offers a glimpse into all the things you might expect in the life of a beat: sex, drugs, and jazz music. However, it also offers a view into a generation that was actively searching for meaning, however crazy their search may have been.
A few chapters into the book, and you realize that some of Kerouac’s stream-of-conciousness sentences aren’t actually supposed to make sense, and your brain must switch gears and start viewing it as art, or jazz music, instead of the straightforward writing that we’re used to. In fact, Kerouac taped together pages and pages of paper to feed through his typewriter in one long stream, so he wouldn’t have to waste time changing out the papers. It is said that he wrote the book in 3 months flat, sometimes spending all day and night typing and sweating with the energy of it, embodying his protagonist Dean in many respects.
On the Road tells of Sal Paradise (or Jack Kerouac) and his friend Dean Moriarty (a fictional name for Neal Cassady) as they race from one side of the US to the other and back again. Sal sets himself up as the sidekick of sorts for the book: “And I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”
And the people that interest Sal are truly mad. Dean is a strange character with a shady past who does what he likes without caring at all what people think. He’s in search of something all the time, and he’s greedily grasping at whatever exciting thing overtakes him at any given moment, which is why I think they travel back and forth across the United States. What you begin to discover is that there is often no real reason that they are doing this – they just have to GO.
“Whee. Sal, we gotta go and never stop going till we get there.”
“Where we going, man?”
“I don’t know but we gotta go.”
However glamorous this life may sound at first, the book also is brutally honest. Passages will rave about how exciting and glorifying their experiences are but in the same breath admit that the characters were very, very sad. You see that these men and women are looking for something. Some are depressed and don’t say much. Some are dependent on drugs, or on relationships. On one hand, you want to like Dean because he’s so overwhelmed and overjoyed by life, but on the other, you begin to hate him because he doesn’t seem to truly care about anything or anybody, including his long string of wives and girlfriends.
The way they spoke and acted was as erratic and spontaneous as the jazz music they loved. “The piano hit a chord. ‘So baby come on just clo-o-o-ose your pretty little ey-y-y-y-yes’ – his mouth quivered, he looked at us, Dean and me, with an expression that seemed to say, Hey now, what’s this thing we’re all doing in this sad brown world? – and then he came to the end of his song, and for this there had to be elaborate preparations, during which time you could send all the messages to Garcia around the world twleve times and what difference did it make to anybody? because here we were dealing with the pit and prune-juice of poor beat life itself in the god-awful streets of man, so he said it and sang it, “Close-your-” and blew it way up to the ceiling and through to the stars and on out – “E-y-y-y-y-y-es” – and staggered off the platform to brood. He sat in the corner with a bunch of boys and paid no attention to them. He looked down and wept. He was the greatest.”
I found this book to be, at its core, a very sad one, because the characters search and search in some strange (and sometimes depressing and disgusting) places, and they don’t really find what they are looking for… they just keep on going and keep on looking. And that’s basically how it ends – it felt unresolved. On the other hand, I really like to see people searching… because that means that they still care about life and about asking questions and trying to figure out who they are and who God is. Kerouac himself said that the he coined the term “beat” from the Catholic concept of “beatific vision.” On the Road is really a book about the post-modern spiritual search of a group of people who eventually became the “hippies” of the 60’s and 70’s. I think the book is still relevant to us, as a large part of our current generation looks back to the beats and the hippies for inspiration and continues its search for meaning.