ON THE ROAD by Jack Kerouac

Obviously, this is no ordinary novel. Sometimes certain books become cultural sensations and take on many different lives. When that happens, I think it’s important to take a few steps back and look at the original with fresh eyes. This can be disappointing, like when something doesn’t live up to a memory. In this case, however, it was surprising and pleasant.
I got into the Beat writers in high school but I didn’t focus much on Kerouac. My secret shame was that I often had trouble finishing novels and that’s probably part of what kept me away. Burroughs’ novels were usually short and/or disjointed and Ginsberg wrote poetry. Also, Kerouac was the least clearly homoerotic of the three major Beat writers. Unlike his two friends, he was not particularly interesting to a passionate, albeit DEEPLY closeted gay teen like myself. Finally, Kerouac seemed the essence of cool to me. He had lived fearlessly and vibrantly, in my view. In short, he was about as different from me as possible. I was (am) awkward, shy and painfully self-conscious. Reading the Beats was a way of living vicariously through others. If I got too deep however, it would just remind me that these people truly lived, lived in ways I could never hope to be brave enough to even try. For me, Kerouac was the essence of going too deep.
Flash forward to 2010. I’m 29 and life was not looking good. Not in any catastrophic way, just a slow, depressing slide. Two friends were going on a long bike trip which I thought was really incredible. I was happy for them but I also felt a twinge of sadness because I knew it was something I could never bring myself to do. Around that time, I heard a movie was being made of On the Road.  I started thinking about the book. It struck me that this was one of those books most people probably read before they turn 30. I decided to pick it up and finish it before my birthday. Coincidentally, I ended up scheduling a short trip of my own. While it was pretty pathetic in terms of length compared to Kerouac’s trip and the trip my friends were taking, I was still very excited. I took On the Road with me and read much of it during this trip.
Pretty quickly I regretted anything I had ever thought of Kerouac. True, he didn’t grab me the way Ginsberg or (to a lesser extent) Burroughs had but he was not the insufferably impressive cool kid I’d imagined. The thing that haunts me the most about this book is the loneliness. Few writers have captured the sense of disconnect better. But Kerouac tops that. He also captures the longing TO connect. His novel is filled with love for people, places, America and music. (Actually, the LONG hymns to Jazz were the only parts I didn’t like. They were just too distracting.) The sad thing is how little that love got for him. In the end, he is still longing, still disconnected. Along the way, Kerouac (in the person of his alter ego/narrator Sal Paradise) asks questions I’ve always found myself grappling with. Why do certain people who deserve our love remain hazy in our hearts and minds? Why do we obsess over those who neglect us? Sal’s relationship with Dean Moriarty (based on Kerouac’s friend, Beat inspiration Neal Cassady) is the ambiguous answer to these queries. Kerouac is not at all blind to Moriarty’s selfishness, casual cruelty and occasional shallowness. However, he can never bring himself to stop worshiping, to give up on what he thinks he sees in the man. Maybe it really is there after all. I don’t think Kerouac gives us a rock solid answer on that front and that’s a good thing. Those are questions we have to answer for ourselves, just as he probably did. By the end of the book, I realized I was not so different from Sal and that made me think that maybe I wasn’t so different from many other people I’d always believed I was completely disconnected from. Making us feel more connected to other people is one of the things a great novel can do. This is a great novel and Jack Kerouac was a greater writer, and a greater spirit, than I ever allowed myself to realize.


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