“What’s your road, man? – holyboy road, madman road, rainbow road, guppy road, any road. It’s an anyhow road for anybody anyhow.”
Remember your first proper adult road trip? The excitement and anticipation of new places and climates and people and culture. That’s the experience of reading ‘On the Road’, the loosely-disguised autobiographical account of the writer Jack Kerouac’s travels back and forth across America in the late 1940s. Starting out from New York, Kerouac (as Sal Paradise) travels west by bus, car, truck (both in and on) in pursuit of his friend Dean Moriarty, a free-spirit (and raging speed freak) who comes in and out of Kerouac’s back and forth (and eventually downwards) journey across the U.S.
“I was on the road again.”
It is essentially a love letter to America, as Kerouac experiences the country. Each new experience comes in a rush, so that you see it as Kerouac did. The charm of On the Road is in the spontaneity: of hitchhiking across the country; of a diet of apple pie and ice cream; of hustling and being hustled.Part of the appeal and resonance of Kerouac’s trips are his experiences of the real America, of seedy bars and railyard shacks and immigrant workers.
“I had 365 miles yet to hitchhike to New York, and a dime in my pocket.”
It must also be remembered that these were simpler times, when not everyone owned a car or phone, where a dollar’s worth of petrol could get you a hundred miles, and fifty cents could buy you dinner at a roadside diner. Many of the trips within On the Road are begun on second- and third-hand rumours of friends being in various cities, only to find them weeks gone upon arrival. This can seem frustrating to modern readers in an age of instant communication, but it’s precisely this uncertainty which drives (literally) the frantic pace of the cross-country road trips as the characters hurry to get to the next rendezvous. And drugs. Lots of drugs, specifically methamphetamines (Benzedrine, or ‘bennies’) but also marijuana (‘tea’).
“…the sordid hipsters of America, a new beat generation that I was slowly joining.”
Before the hipsters of today there were the hippies of the 1960s; before them the Beats of the 1950s, essentially a loose group of writers, artists and poets. They were the original dropouts in a post-war period of conformity and mass consumerism. After the (eventual) success of On the Road, Kerouac was labelled “King of the Beats”, a title he detested.
A big part of the appeal of On the Road is the myth of its creation. Kerouac preferred to type his manuscripts in order to capture the speed of unconscious thoughts as they came to him. However, the process of changing pages interfered with this flow. As a solution, he taped together twelve-foot long sheets of telex paper and was able to type continuously. Hence the legendary ‘scroll’ edition of On the Road was born. And while this was achieved over only a three-week period, the fact is that he revised it over many years until it was eventually accepted for publication. This process highlights the dichotomy of the artist: the furious initial genius of creativity balanced by the less-spontaneous but just as important process of refinement. This is also reflected in the lifestyle of the artist: you must have experiences in order to have something to write about, yet you must also make time to reflect upon and write about them. So too it was with Kerouac
“…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…”
Understanding the rhythm of Kerouac’s language is the key to enjoying the book, and that rhythm is jazz, specifically bebop. Sentences flow on in free-form association, like a jazz trumpet or piano solo. Were you to read them aloud on a single breath you would almost run out of air, which is in fact partly the effect that Kerouac was aiming for. Today it would be the equivalent of using the speech and rhythm patterns of hip-hop culture.
This breathless style also perfectly evokes the experience of being on the road, of seeing new and unfamiliar countryside rush by at seventy miles an hour from the back of a flatbed truck or railway freight car, covering a thousand miles a day, as Kerouac experienced it. New sensations of sight, sound and smell pile on top of each other and overwhelm and then are gone in a blur, to be replaced by the next oncoming impression.
“…there was nowhere to go but everywhere.”
On the Road is often criticised for lacking a plot – but that’s the whole point: a road trip has no plot. I’ve read On the Road three times, with ten years between each read. In my twenties it was inspiring. In my thirties it was a reminiscence. In my forties it was a lament for lost youth and lost friendships. That’s the mark of a classic book; it changes with each read as we ourselves change, so that each read becomes a new experience. It will also show you how you have grown. The analogy of meeting with an old friend is apt.
Most of Kerouac’s works are autobiographical, covering his childhood to his final years as an alcoholic recluse. He died at 47. All of his works contain varying degrees of the ‘Kerouac style’. The book also features the famous poet Allen Ginsberg and infamous writer William Burroughs. There is a 2012 movie adaptation. Though it contains some fine actors I would prefer not to let it spoil my vision of the book. Another down and out, alcoholic writer who wrote even more unflinchingly than Kerouac was Charles Bukowski.
The pace and structure of Kerouac's classic can take a while to get use to, we recommend listening to some of his readings to set the tone and voice.