Review: On the Road by Jack Kerouac

Kerouac’s vagrants are literate, self-pitying, afraid of women, and condescending towards Mexicans and African-Americans. No one will confuse them with Steinbeck’s displaced Okies, and no grapes of wrath are trampled out by them. Nor are they doom-eager dreamers like Gatsby, or monomaniac questers like Ahab, or benign wanderers like Huckleberry Finn. Comparing On the Road to the masterpieces of Classic American fiction is most unkind to Kerouac.
Harold Bloom
Whatever your opinion of old Harold Bloom (and my own cannot be described as favorable), that first sentence sounds about right. Kerouac's heroes belong to one of the nastiest species in the Western world's literary zoo: the dramatic young man (where "young" stands for a state of mind more than it does for a biological age - see also "man-child"). 

What's the dramatic young man's story in a nutshell? It is the story of easily-frustrated entitlement. The dramatic young man knows the world was supposed to be his oyster. But, alas, his life is marred by an atrocity, usually war or school, autocratic fathers, prolonged stretches of peace, dead fathers, the bourgeois, saintly mothers, literary rivals, modern art, promiscuous mothers, dead brothers, live brothers, old art, emancipated women, that sort of thing. One of these horrors, or a combination of them, has put a dent in the lovely oyster, such that our hero is loath to even touch what should have been his for the taking. He channels his self-pity into some form of rebellion against the world, which usually turns out somewhat less glamorous than he'd hoped for and ends with him either self-destructing or conforming to the rotten old world he tried to fight in the first place.

The beauty of this narrative is that it is essentially timeless, because everything in it apart from the young man at its center is a prop. To paraphrase one of the most famous passages from On the Road: "What did they call such young people in Goethe's Germany?" It almost doesn't matter when or where the story is set, the dramatic young man's drama is easy to recognize. (And for the record, I think young German hipsters at the turn of the 19th century were usually called "Oh, for Pete's sake, put that gun down, Werther was fictional!")

So, insofar as the characters' worldview is concerned, I think it's fair to roll your eyes at this book's offerings. (It might even be one of your duties as an adult.) Everything Bloom says about these characters is accurate. Their inner lives are a mixture of ironically-assumed culture, borrowed spirituality, and superficial emotion. They are immature and self-indulgent. They carry their entitlement with them everywhere, while complaining about how they are the beatest of the beat. They long for the periphery, but are unable to relinquish the center. They say stuff like "wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night. [...] I wished I were a Denver Mexican, or even a poor overworked Jap, anything but what I was so drearily, a 'white man' disillusioned." They use and abuse women.

What I'm basically saying is that, if Dean Moriarty is your hero, we cannot be friends. In fact, if this is your favorite book whether you admire its characters or not, we probably cannot be friends. 

I am, however, willing to give it more than Harold Bloom did. After all, the value of a narrative cannot be reduced to how annoying its characters are. At a minimum, one has to look at how the narrative frames those characters, at what its general ethos is. I am not sure that in the end this does On the Road any significant favors, but it does showcase the novel's complexity and, dare I say, underlying traditional structure.

Let's start with Dean Moriarty, the novel's most charismatic character and the object of the narrator's, Sal Paradise, fascination. Dean's function in the text is from the beginning that of the "madman," as Sal's aunt describes him. He plays a multitude of parts with zest, but he is fundamentally none of the characters he tries on. In fact, him trying them on pushes these social masks to their breaking point. Take for example his job in New York:
(...) he only worked like a dog in parking lots. The most fantastic parking-lot attendant in the world, he can back a car forty miles an hour into a tight squeeze and stop at the wall, jump out, race among fenders, leap into another car, circle it fifty miles an hour in a narrow space, back swiftly into tight spot, hump, snap the car with the emergency so that you see it bounce as he flies out; then clear to the ticket shack, sprinting like a track star, hand a ticket, leap into a newly arrived car before the owner's half out, leap literally under him as he steps out, start the car with the door flapping, and roar off to the next available spot, arc, pop in, brake, out, run; working like that without pause eight hours a night, evening rush hours and after-theater rush hours, in greasy wino pants with a frayed fur-lined jacket and beat shoes that flap.
What does this description reveal? Does it only say something about Dean? Does it say something about the job itself or about the world at large? Well, possibly both, but I don't think the aim here is to offer a larger, coherent commentary. The point is that once you've seen the job as inhabited by Dean Moriarty, you cannot unsee it. He's made it about pure frenzy. It might be that frenzy was the essence of the job all along and Dean's taking it seriously revealed it, or it might be that the frenzy was his own contribution, a result of his "madness" as it were. (And if I were to go all Foucault on you, I'd say this ambiguity is precisely what allows perceived madness to function as a sort of social critique. For more, see another adorably dramatic young man that used to be the prince of Denmark.)

Dean always runs a little over the margins of any given role, which ensures that he's never a stable part of any system (he's not a good husband, friend, worker, intellectual, anything really). And this is what allows him to be the link to the marginalized world that Sal wants to explore. It is why Sal looks for Dean, "western kinsman of the sun," in his first travel West and why he constantly gravitates towards him afterwards. At the beginning of Part Three, when Sal fantasizes about shedding his disillusioned white man persona and joining the ranks of the blessed dispossessed, he immediately thinks of Dean as having access to that world:
I was only myself, Sal Paradise, sad, strolling in this violet dark, this unbearably sweet night, wishing I could exchange worlds with the happy, true-hearted, ecstatic Negroes of America. The raggedy neighborhoods reminded me of Dean and Marylou, who knew these streets so well from childhood. How I wished I could find them
Because he is this sort of larger-than-life, anarchic eraser of boundaries, Dean is an important part of the racial escapism that permeates the novel. On the one hand, you have the romanticization of poverty and marginalization, seen as elements that allow the poor and marginalized access to depths of experience that are unavailable to disillusioned white men financially supported by their aunts, like Sal. But Dean, auntless and raised in poverty, is said to know this world well. On the other hand, you have jazz, the myth of ecstatic inspiration, of chasing IT and holding IT (whatever IT is) with no contribution of the conscious mind etc. Dean's ability to enter frenzy-like states makes it easier for him to participate in this as well. Dean is wild and dark, and Sal's fascination with him is in fact one and the same with Sal's desire to cross color and class lines in search of the true experience, to make the transition from beat to beatific.

But if On the Road uses Dean to symbolize this aspiration, it is also clear that it partially rejects what he stands for. Consider the way every one of Sal's road trips ends in desolation. Consider Dean's decay and the way Sal becomes his keeper and defender in the second part of the book as they travel East. Consider all the moments in which Dean abandons Sal. And finally consider Sal's occasionally bleak attitude towards their lifestyle:
I realized these were all the snapshots which our children would look at someday with wonder, thinking their parents had lived smooth, well-ordered, stabilized-within-the-photo 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 nightmare road. All of it inside endless and beginningless emptiness. Pitiful forms of ignorance.
The promise embodied in the road trip and falteringly chased by Sal is never fulfilled. Sal returns to order, exalted monogamy with a girl with "pure and innocent eyes" and a life from which, despite a lingering nostalgia, Dean Moriarty is edged out.

The Bottom line

As long as I read the novel as an essentially pessimistic statement, I don't dislike it. I don't love it, I find the claim that it is an unedited burst of inspiration laughable, and the idea that one might go on the road because of it close to the idea of throwing Gatsby parties or putting Ahab on the cover of a self-help book as far as missing the point goes. But I don't dislike it.

I can't, however, deny that this interpretation hinges on us being able to maintain a certain ironic distance from Sal's narration. It depends on us being able to balance the sentimentality verging on makwkishness from certain parts of the text with the bleakness from other parts. And this balancing out act might not work at all when it comes to the problem of its persistent romantic racism, because I am not sure there is a counterpoint to it in the book. (I am torn on whether we should also take into account Kerouac's later descent into raving, cross-burning racism here.)

In short, I only like this book if I don't take it at face value. I am not sure that that is an entirely valid strategy and I still have a lot of thoughts about it to work through—which is a bit inconvenient because I also don't feel like spending more time on it. I read a fair deal about it while trying to clarify my thoughts, and I might write a list of stuff that I found interesting.

And we still cannot be friends if you identify with any of these characters.


  1. Thanks God, someone who does want to follow the book just because they saw the movie. When I saw the trailer I felt it was the story of a bunch of medium class white, mostly male kids who travel the States in search for their "true" self. Not my cup of tea!

    1. Yeah, I know, I am afraid I was prejudiced against this book from the start b/c "medium class white, mostly male kids" in search of their true selves is my least favorite theme in the world and On the Road seems to be its bible :)

  2. Wonderful analysis - I think you're spot on. I agree with you and, what's more, I envy that you were able to put your thoughts into a coherent, fair review/response. I basically just wrote, "meh." Of course, I read the book before I started blogging so, to be fair, I SHOULD go back and read it again... and try to respond to it again. I guess.

    Also: "Whatever your opinion of old Harold Bloom (and my own cannot be described as favorable)" <-- Ditto.

    1. Well, look at it this way: if you revisit it, you'd be subjected to ~250 pages of meh, but we'd get a nice analysis out of it? :D

  3. Thank goodness we can be friends. HA!

    I'm glad I read the book, but I did a ton of eye-rolling and had more than a few "Did he really just say that?" moments.

    1. You know, after your mini-video (is there a name for that gif with sound thing?) review of Naked Lunch last night, I'm now actually picturing your review of On the Road like that and it's cracking me up!

  4. "But if On the Road uses Dean to symbolize this aspiration, it is also clear that it partially rejects what he stands for."--Exactly. This is why I'm confused when I read that the book changed peoples lives and inspired them to take to the road, etc. I kept wondering, "Did they read the book? Did they see how futile it was and what a disappointment Dean was?"