On The Road by Jack Kerouac is universally regarded as ‘the’ novel of the Beat generation. Echoing Kerouac’s own life, filled with writing, booze, drugs and travel, On The Road is the original salute to living life without a damn, and without thinking of the consequences.
Sal Paradise is an author writing in his first manuscript, living with his aunt in New York. Then, he meets con man and fellow beatnik, Dean Moriarty, and decides to travel cross country to San Francisco. No money, no plans, no worries. Hitch-hiking across the continent, Paradise meets and falls in love with a girl, destroys a friendship, gets a job as a night watchmen and never even meets up with his mate Moriarty.
And that’s just the first trip across the country, of which there are several.
On The Road is considered an iconic example of roman a clef, using fiction to mask the real lives that Kerouac (Paradise), Allen Ginsberg (Carlo Marx) and William S. Burroughs (Old Bull Lee) led. While this is the first Kerouac novel that I’ve read, I’ve come across him before in other books – notably in Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels.
I can see where On The Road would be a cult classic, beloved by a certain type of person and reader. In terms of quality, it is a fantastic book. Kerouac captures the essence of the Beat generation, the feel of poverty and travel, the debauchery rakishness of his main characters. His richly painted scenes of American countryside, particularly towards the end in Mexico, were vivid, colourful and engrossing.
Yet I didn’t like this book.
I just couldn’t stand Sal Paradise and his mates. While the reality of getting drunk, sleeping with women, travelling the country, all sounds great, as a reader I just felt as though it was all utterly, totally pointless. Paradise goes across the country only to curse San Francisco and to return home, with his tail between his legs. Then, bam, off he goes again, not once, but twice. And each time that he travels he isn’t prepared, he has no money, he stresses that he won’t be able to eat.
Now, don’t get me wrong, there are definitely people out there that would read On The Road and envy Sal Paradise’s lifestyle. I’m not one of those people. And while I usually love reading stories from the perspective of a character whose life is so far removed form mine (isn’t that the purpose of reading, after all?), I was just overcome by the absolute pointlessness of Sal’s character. What is he trying to prove? What he is trying to achieve? Why am I being carried along beside him, as a reader, only to find that he is doing the same nothingness with his life over and over? What has changed from the beginning and the end of his story?
Overall, I can see why Jack Kerouac’s On The Road is considered a classic, but it wasn’t the book for me. I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad book, but it contained characters that I couldn’t relate to, and their stories just seemed uninteresting and pointless. However, I know that this is a beloved novel by a lot, so if you would like to prove me wrong, please don’t hesitate.
Have you read On The Road or anything by Jack Kerouac? Are you a fan of the Beat generation? Let me know!