Not long ago, I decided to read Jack Kerouac’s groundbreaking novel, On the Road. While I feel too much of a cynic to believe that I would have been swept away with its charm and sense of adventure, there was a time of my life where I was swayed by Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael. I wanted to try to read it without cynicism or preconceived notions: this was difficult, of course, because the novel has been heralded by critics and audiences alike. I’m not sure that I would say that I hate the book, now that I’m done with it, but I really don’t like it.
Modern Library (an affiliate of Random House) listed the novel in its top 100 novels of the 20th century. On the Road is listed as #55 on the list. Accordingly, On the Road is greater than Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange or Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye or Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake or Hemmingway’s A Farewell to Arms or any number of books that didn’t quite reach the top 100. Kerouac’s book is also included on Time’s list of 100 greatest English-language novels since 1923. What is it that I’m missing here?
On the Road follows Sal Paradise as he meets up with a near-legendary figure, Dean Moriarty. Moriarty is a free-spirit type who doesn’t want to be tied down by conventions like social contracts, civic duties, or families – especially families – children, what a bummer! The two meet up a few times over the course of a few years, and together, they cross miles and miles of America. That’s about it in terms of the plot of the book.
Kerouac’s novel was revolutionary at its time – for the straight-laced 1950’s, it’s spirit of adventure and freewheeling carelessness had to be both exciting and dangerous. In today’s time, the characters come across as selfish, foolish, and irresponsible. The novel helped usher in a new era of art: the Beat period. Along with Ginsburg’s “Howl,” On the Road defined a way of living, and for that, the novel is absolutely noteworthy. The novel is a great piece of history – a snapshot of a time, or a glimpse at the way things were. The novel is not, however, great literature.
The protagonist and narrator, Sal Paradise, isn’t even the main character in his own story. Through reading On the Road, I felt sorrow, more than anything. I don’t see how this could come across as anything less than condescending, but I felt bad for Paradise, who wasn’t even the lead character in his own life. He is uninteresting, he is overly suggestible, and he is a man of complete inaction. Almost every moment of the novel consists of either Paradise wondering where his friend Dean is, following Dean around, or drooling over Dean’s easygoing, manic lifestyle. When Dean decided to leave his bummer of a second-wife, who was always crying/screaming because Moriarty wouldn’t take into consideration their daughter? When Dean breaks his thumb trying to beat his ex-girlfriend? When Dean decided to leave behind his sick friends in Mexico? This feels hardly like a man who has been taken with the spirit of life and more like a selfish piece of trash. The half-baked philosophies of Paradise and Moriarty – the musings about life, the universe, and what it’s all about – don’t even come across as insight as much as just baseless confusion.
Sal Paradise is hard to begrudge in On the Road – he’s mostly harmless as the passenger to Moriarty. Dean Moriarty, on the other hand, is pretty despicable. He’s a man with no sense of foresight, empathy, or will. Life has devolved to a hedonistic adventure for him, and he has to frequently run around town looking for “kicks” to entertain himself. These “kicks” usually involve using people, spending their money, drinking alcohol, or all three at once. What makes On the Road unbearable is that the narrator is Moriarty’s number one fan: if readers hate Moriarty, they must spend 300 pages with someone madly in love with him.
A quarter of the way through the novel, I was hoping that the ending would involve Paradise turning his back on Moriarty, through some realization of how absolutely expendable everyone is to Moriarty. This ending never came though, and in fact, no ending came at all. On the Road features almost no character development. Even though it spans the length of years, no one actually changes – we find the same characters doing the same things and falling into the same patterns of behavior. There was no catharsis, no pivotal moments, no epiphanies, no deep insights, no realizations, no nothing.
While reading On the Road, I couldn’t help but constantly wonder about why the prose felt so uneven. There was just something about it that didn’t flow well with me. I love Cormac McCarthy’s minimalist writing, and I love David Foster Wallace’s maximalist takes – what was it about Kerouac’s writing that felt so vague and weird? Many readers seem to talk about the flow of On the Road as being jazzy, and this to some extent, is accurate: some of the staccato words and abrupt transitions work well to give it the feeling of jazz music, but on the whole, it simply doesn’t work.
After finishing the book, I realized that it was written over the course of a matter of weeks, and originally, it was just one long paragraph, typed out on a 120 foot scroll of paper. On the Road is stream-of-conscious, but then again it’s not. The book doesn’t mimic patterns of thought, like Wolfe, Joyce, or Faulkner, but instead, it feels more like the writing of someone hurriedly writing, trying to capture everything before they forget it all. The issue is that it feels rushed, but it’s presented as a standard novel. Had the story unfolded as it was typed (in one long paragraph), I think the flow would have worked for the better, but as it stands now, it feels broken.
After hearing about how this novel was (and still is) a life-changing moment for people in their early 20’s, and I have to wonder, who are these people? I wouldn’t want to meet them to harass them for being taken with On the Road – I would want them to help me understand what it is about this book that is so transformative. I’ve got to be missing something, right?