I don’t think anyone suggested Jack Kerouac’s On the Road to me. Rather, I think it was just one of those books that I’d heard bits and pieces about and have had on a vague mental list of things to read before I die (basically if a book is there, it probably won’t get read). Anyways, I have been thinking and reading lots about suburbia, the automobile, and the environmental impacts of these things, so it seemed fitting to throw Kerouac’s book on the list given that it captured the zeitgeist of automobiles in the late 1950s. It was a moment when anything seemed possible, the road spread out before you, gas was cheap, and you could hit the road and drive for miles on end simply for the sheer pleasure of it. Standing now in the second decade of the 21st century, we no longer have such a rosy picture given the costs of such actions in the form of climate change, fossil fuel depletion, and the decimation of mom-and-pop shops (or basically any small independent business) at the hands of the corporations (many of whom have their roots or business practices modelled on companies that do in roadside restaurants – more to come in this in my review of Erich Schlosser’s Fast Food Nation).
At the same time, On The Road is a wild read. Yes, yes, it is quite possibly one of the most patriarchal and possibly misogynistic books of the American canon (there are no strong female characters, women seem to be almost interchangeable (particularly for Dean Moriarty, and women seem to be valued for sex alone). It is true, I had a number of knee-jerks while reading. But what is also true, at least for me, is that I really enjoyed the novel. There is a certain appeal to the zaniness of Sal Paradise’s multiple trips across the US in cars. I have crossed Canada at least 7 times by car and I cherish many moments from these trips. I can only imagine what it would be like to take that trip now with some of my best friends and no other real attachments (I can already hear the privilege coming through as I write this …). Sal, the protagonist and a psuedo-autobiographical character, crosses the country initially because he had simply wanted to go West. In the process he meets Dean, an intense and vibrantly energetic young man, who becomes the key player in the following three trips. Sal does not own a car but hitchhikes, uses a travel bureau system to get rides with others for gas, takes the bus or train, or rides with Dean in his car. The sheer excitement of travel really comes through and I loved it.
I am not really doing justice to the book. It deals with the Beat Generation and has become, rightly or wrongly, a synecdoche for the whole movement. There is a really interesting jazz angle to it and Kerouac does interesting things with race, especially given that On the Road predates the racial tensions of the 1960s. The trip into Mexico is also interesting if problematic given some of the pseudo-modernist fascination with “primitive” culture (read dying Indian stereotype). Be forewarned that the novel is very loosely a novel. It is big and takes many tangents, so don’t expect a fast or tight read.
I would recommend this novel to those who love driving across North America and to anyone serious about understanding American culture.
Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. New York: Penguin Books, 1959. Print.