I first read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road ten years ago during my first trip to Paris. It was the book’s 40th anniversary, and I read an article about it on an in-flight magazine. That, plus the fact that a friend had recommended it to me and that I kept seeing it in bookstores, led me to buy it in London’s Gatwick Airport. I still have the cash register receipt, yellowed and creased, tucked into the book. So I know that I read the first words of the book -- “I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up....” -- on September 21, 1997. I thought, “Hey, I’m on the road too,” and plunged into a book that, it turned out, would change much about the way I thought.
I just finished reading it again, ten years later. Much has changed during that time. Now it’s the book’s 50th anniversary. Again, Kerouac has been getting much attention. I read most of John Leland’s Why Kerouac Matters before I left for Paris. But I’ve changed too. And my reading of this book, important for me in many ways over the past decade, has evolved.
When I first read Kerouac, I was struck by the sense of adventure, fun, and excitement of being on the road -- something I felt then too being in Paris for the first time. For Sal and Dean and the other characters in the slightly-fictionalized version of Kerouac’s own travels in the late 1940s, the goal was having “kicks” and seeing what lay ahead on a road that stretched out beyond where the eye could see. The theme that I paid most attention to was their desire for experience, life, and exploration. They couldn’t seem to explore enough, both of America and of themselves.
Those two were, metaphorically, the same thing. Sal and Dean are “all-American” boys, although not the sort from 1950s sitcoms. Dean -- based on the real-life Neal Cassidy -- is a former juvenile delinquent and ex-con, a feverish talker, crazy driver, and con man who thinks of little but himself. He is plagued by “madness,” something which Kerouac never labels or describe any further, but seems to be a cross between ADD and existential angst. Dean is endearing in many ways too. Throughout the book, he pulsates with energy and literally says “Yes” to everything and everyone he meets. His life may be troubled, but it’s certainly full to the brim.
Sal -- the fictionalized Kerouac himself -- is quieter, shyer, more reflective and broody. He embraces an America that is similarly “beat” -- the word that he popularized. “Beat” means down-and-out, but it takes on tones of mystical revelation. Drawing on his Catholic heritage, Kerouac’s “beatness” meant being beaten down to the point of seeing things in a new way, of removing all your old self and creating a new one. Beat revelation could lead to resurrection. And that’s the America Sal sees.
One of the things I loved most about this book when I first read it was that he captures of a vision of post-WWII America that is not the one of economic good times, the baby boom, and suburban white picket fences. There is no nuclear family, no new car in the driveway, and no mom vacuuming in high heals and pearls. Instead, there are migrant farm workers in California picking fruit, black jazzmen blowing in juke joints, bums riding the rails and warming themselves around fires, and the “beat generation” of bohemian writers like Kerouac, Alan Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and others before they became the famous icons of modern American literature. They are Kerouac’s heroes because their outsider status -- and their “beatness” -- means that in his eyes, they are closer to some greater truth than all the people who follow the rules and do what they’re told. The “beat” have nothing to lose because they’re already society’s losers. That makes them “the poor in spirit” to whom belongs the kingdom of heaven.
My reading of the world in On the Road in 1997 was one of limitless possibility. Ten years later, that theme is still there, and it still make readings this novel fun. But other elements of the narrative came clearer to me this time. For one, this is a story of loss. The entire book is told in retrospect as Sal looks back over the course of his friendship with Dean, knowing -- as we do by the end of the book -- that their friendship will end. The story is intensely personal, the tale of two men who start off as adventurers and become spiritual brothers, but who eventually take different paths out of adolescence and youth into adulthood. Kerouac shows us the intertwining and the unraveling of two lives, but leaves us with only with a sense of loss.
That notion of loss runs throughout the book as Sal and Dean search for “IT,” as Dean calls that sense of revelation, but which they rarely ever find. Dean is constantly looking for his long-lost alcoholic father who has abandoned him, and Kerouac ends the novel by conflating the two men. The book’s last words are: “...I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.” The sense of absence permeates Sal and Dean’s relationship. The climax of the novel comes at the moment and in the place where Sal and Dean come closest to the freedom and inspiration for which they’ve been looking as they encounter a limitless sensual and emotional experience in Mexico, a place they see as being free of strictures and limitations of American society. Kerouac calls it “the end of the road.”
But at that moment, Sal falls gravely ill with dysentery and Dean, having gotten the quickie Mexican divorce from one of his several wives, returns to New York. At the moment when Sal needs a friend most, Dean reveals his true, selfish nature and leaves him to recuperate on his own. Dean, the abandoned one, now abandons Sal. They meet again, and Sal seems to have forgiven, or excused, Dean’s behavior, but from then on nothing is ever the same between them. Sal finds the girl he’s always been looking for and plans to marry her. Dean criss-crosses the country to see Sal, but never explains why. And they are forced to part as Sal goes off in a limo to a Duke Ellington concert, this time abandoning Dean on a freezing cold Seventh Avenue in Manhattan, never to see him again.
Sal loses more than his friend, he loses his illusions about life and love. He still embraces a romantic vision of “beat America” where the downtrodden are more real and true than the mainstream and the road still beckons to him as the path to a mystical journey. Later novels carry on this theme of travel as redemption and enlightenment. But it’s the human story of the ending of his friendship with Dean that made its powerful punch to me this time.
The other theme, related to the first, that became more apparent to me on this reading was the loneliness of the road which Sal feels, especially in the first part of the book. On his first journey when he crosses the US by himself, he meets many people and has a range of interactions. But there are long stretches of solitude too. For all the connections he makes, each one leads to an eventual departure and to having no one on whom to rely but himself.
The best example is his encounter with Terry, the Mexican girl he meets on the bus to California. They start a relationship and almost see themselves as married for a time. Their feelings seem genuine, and he moves to be with her family and picks fruit with them in the hot sun. There, he dreams of being a Mexican -- a fantasy full of romantic stereotyping which bears little resemblance to the real lives these people lead. But, despite the intensity of his feeling for Terry and the time he spends with her, he knows that it has to end. And it does. The road remains open -- it beckons to him -- but often he’s the only one on it.