Author: Jack Kerouac
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publishing Date: 2008
Number of Pages: 408 pages
Genre: Beatnik, Counterculture, Adventure
During three weeks in 1951, Jack Kerouac wrote the first draft of On the Road–typed as a long, single-spaced paragraph on eight sheets of tracing paper, which he taped together to form a scroll. Representing the identifiable point at which his vision and narrative voice first came together in a sustained burst of creative energy, the scroll is the “uncut” version of Kerouac’s masterpiece-rougher, wilder, and more sexually explicit than the edited work that appeared in 1957. On the Road: The Original Scroll is Kerouac’s signature achievement – and one of the most significant, celebrated, and provocative documents in American literary history.
On The Road. This is one of the books that have long piqued my curiosity because of the book’s title. Even though I barely had an iota on what it was about, the title gave a hint on what it was about. Being a traveler made me curious about books dealing with adventures and Jack Kerouac’s On The Road seem to be the perfect book that could rouse the inner adventurer in me. Moreover, there is the added value in reading On The Road – I will be crossing out yet another book on the 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die.
But my expectations were unfounded. It’s not that the book wasn’t great. It’s just that it steered me into a direction that is altogether different from what I expected.
In a nutshell, On The Road, is a semi-biographical recount of Kerouac’s numerous road trips across continental America during the late 1950s. The book is part of the Post War Beat and counter culture movement. Most of the characters in the book are based on central figures in these renowned cultural movements. Among them are William S. Burroughs (Old Bull Lee), Allen Ginsberg (Carlo Marx) and Neal Cassady (Dean Moriarty). Sal Paradise, Kerouac’s alter ego, along with Moriarty are the book’s primary narrators.
On its own, the book is a very difficult one to appreciate. This is after all the original manuscript, which, at its time was legendary because Kerouac wrote it was written on scrolls. Thankfully, the version I read is accompanied by numerous editorials regarding the book. I never realized the whole extent of the book’s magnitude – it is obviously one of the most studied literary pieces. These commentaries and editorials aided in my understanding and appreciation of the book. This helped in settling the dust that obfuscated most parts of the story.
The first thing that made an impression on me about the book is its strong language. There is a strong sense of libertarianism about Sal’s adventures and the way he freely expressed his thoughts. This is also prevalent in the way Sal interacted with the other characters in the book. At some points, it is obnoxious to the point of censorious. But it is also this strong language that provided the book a touch of authenticity and its own stamp of uniqueness.
Whereas the book extensively dealt about Kerouac’s travels, there are numerous themes that were infused in the narrative. One of the prevailing themes is its Americana element especially as numerous places Kerouac travelled to were prominently featured in the book. The other underlying themes were about the characteristics of the Beatnik generation – sex and drugs. These are passé topics but Kerouac dealt with them in an offhanded manner, fortifying the free-spiritedness of the book.
The story’s free flowing narrative is another element that I deeply appreciated about the book. It didn’t follow any particular pattern but the structure is straightforward. This structure is a step away from the traditional structure one is used to. However, the story lacked a concrete ending. There was no clear conclusion to the story. However, the book’s ending is filled with nostalgia as Sal looks back at the memories he was able to accumulate throughout his journeys.
It was an altogether element that kept me riveted with the story. The passionate friendship that has formed amongst the characters held my attention. Their friendship is not the typical one we read in books but it is one that is nonetheless filled with loyalty. These elements transcended all time and placed On the Road on the pedestal of greatness because stories of friendship never get old. But what sets apart their friendship from the rest is its balanced nature. It was the perfect mix of juvenile fun and adolescent sensibilities.
However, one can’t help but perceive the book as an escapist in nature. Kerouac used traveling to step away from the realities that has been gripping him. Although there is nothing wrong in that. The book also tries to supplant the norm that is prevalent in the era (and even more so today). Instead of being stuck in the corporate boardroom, Kerouac opted to explore his true nature by going on an independent trailblazing adventure that spans the United States and Mexico.
The latter still holds true today. Even though the book was written during the Baby Boom generation, it becomes more relevant in the current Millenial generation. Instead of being chained to the ground, this generation is maximizing the concept of travel to escape one’s burgeoning responsibilities. Although it is mostly for leisure, traveling has become a means of rediscovering one’s self. This realization made me appreciate On the Road better.
On The Road’s portrayal of the Beatnik generation is commendable. He mixed in different elements of this period to come up with a staggering work, not just about this generation. But it isn’t just simply a work about a specific generation, it is a book about friendship. On the Road is a wild but bold book. It is what sets the book apart from the rest. It is complex but it is a wonderful journey of finding one’s self while creating memories that will last a lifetime with people who treasures us.
These is a sentimentality in the book that made me connect with it. Although it dealt with sex, drugs and homophobia, it is shining in its portrayal of friendship. On the Road is a representative of its era but its influence still ripples today. It is a step out of the norm and albeit complex, it is an arresting story. But to be honest, had it not been for the introductions and commentaries at the start of the book, On The Road might have ended on my “did not finish” list.
Recommended for those who are looking for reads that are out-of-the-box, those who are intrigued by the Beat and Counter Culture movements, and those who are looking to understand portions of the Americana culture.
Not recommended for those who dislike obnoxious and censorious language.
About The Author
Jean-Louis Kerouac, more known as Jack Kerouac, is a pioneer of the Beat Generation. Of French-Canadian descent, he was born on March 12, 1922 in Lowell, Massachusetts.
Due to his athletic skills, Kerouac entered Columbia University on a scholarship. While playing during his freshman year, he broke his leg. During his year, he was benched by his coach, resulting to endless arguments. This marked the end of his football career and he eventually dropped out of the university. While residing in New York’s Upper West Side, he met the pioneers of the Beat Generation, including Allen Ginsberg, Neal Cassady and William S. Burroughs.
Kerouac’s first officially published novel was The Town and the City (1950). It tasted little success even though it was critically praised. It was his next novel, On the Road (1957) which earned him universal recognition. Post On the Road, Kerouac traveled endlessly in the United States and in Mexico. During his travels, he finished drafts of 10 more novels, including The Subterraneans, Desolation Angels and Doctor Sax.
Kerouac has one daughter with Joan Haverty. He passed away in October 20, 1969 due to internal hemorrhage caused by a lifetime of heavy drinking.