Monday, February 23, 2015

On the Road, by Jack Kerouac

I am more than willing to admit it when I don't "get it"--and I don't get what makes On the Road one of the great books of the 20th century. A largely autobiographical novel, On the Road recounts Sal Paradise's travels across the United States in the late 1940s. Sal takes the bus, hitchhikes, and drives repeatedly from New York to Denver and San Francisco and back (with side trips to a variety of other locations), often accompanied by friends, most notably the much loved eccentric Dean Moriarty. Sal and his friends are always searching for an elusive "it," which they seem to believe Dean holds the key to finding. But they never find or uncover anything of any depth; rather they reveal a self-centeredness that verges on the pathological. They overindulge in drugs and alcohol, take advantage of nearly every one they meet, and treat women and the children they have with those women with particular cavalierness (to be fair, Sal does not spawn any children and is less abusive of women than his friends). Sal's attitudes toward African Americans and Latinos are simultaneously romanticized, racist, and curiously unmoored from any understanding of history.

Kerouac dubbed his style"spontaneous prose" and saw it as inspired by jazz in its frenzied madness (this is his conception of jazz); in fact, the lives of his characters do have a frenzied madness that amounts to, in his own words, "senseless emptiness."

Favorite passage:
I realized these were all the snapshots which our children would look at someday with wonder, thinking their parents had lived smooth, well-ordered lives and got up in the morning to walk proudly on the sidewalks of life, never dreaming the raggedy madness and riot of our actual lives, our actual night, the hell of it, the senseless emptiness.

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