“I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost. I was halfway across America, at the dividing line between the East of my youth and the West of my future, and maybe that’s why it happened…” --Jack Kerouac, On the Road
This past get together featured Jack Kerouac’s Beat Generation classic, On the Road. Some books just pull discussion out of you like rope out of your hands in a lopsided tug-of-war match, and this book is one of them. I began our talk by mentioning how On the Road wasn’t what I expected. I thought I was going to get a hipper, updated, more accessible version of Walden. I thought the book would consist of 1/3 narration and 2/3 poetic, philosophical ruminations about post-war America. Since it wasn’t, we discussed what exactly the book was, not so much what it was about but how would we characterize it.
We wanted to separate expectations from reality. Keruouac’s intentions vs. our assumptions. Bob brought up the idea that the book is not about the literal journeys across the US but about the figurative inward one. It’s easy to get hung up on the adventurous aspects of this story, but the travels are only vehicles that Kerouac uses to get to what he’s really after: a discussion about the realization of confronting your limitations (self-imposed and otherwise) and trying to accede them. We added that the journey we have, whatever it is, must have an element of true danger. If the hazards are contrived, then the travels lack authenticity, which undercuts their effectiveness. The moments you find yourself in must be real, not manufactured, which is why Bob and his woman stopped using a safe word. But I digress…
…If I may oversimplify for a moment, the point is this: On the Road could’ve been about one journey from Nashville to Memphis if that’s all it took for him to come to the realization about who he is, who he was, and who he needed to be.
The journey motif in literature is huge, and we could’ve spent all day discussing it, but there’s more to the book than his physical and metaphysical travels. We also talked about how Sal Paradise (the Kerouac character) and Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady) were opposites who balanced one another. The two needed each other even as they worked in opposition to each other. For a group who spent 2 months reading Sherlock Holmes, we couldn’t help but point out how the name Moriarty has literary significance as the nemesis of Doyle’s hero. Kerouac drew upon that nomenclature to emphasize how, despite their friendship, the Paradise and Moriary are not to be identified synonymously.
Yet we modern readers have trouble separating them simply because we must identify them together as 2 figure heads of the Beat Generation. Along with the characters of the movement, we had to discuss the characteristics of it as well. So we also talked upon the language Kerouac employs. As mentioned earlier, I loved his poetic bursts of philosophical insight and was expecting more of it. But Mandy pointed out that had the whole novel been like that, we would not have the jazzy rhythms that mark the book’s style.
The vapid moments could be characterized by the steady thumping of a bass guitar, while the philosophic commentary would parallel the improvisation of trumpet blasts. Mandy, whose husband is a musician, would’ve been more attuned to the musicality of the novel. Several of us mentioned that we were more familiar with jazz so that we could’ve appreciated that aspect of the story.
There’s a couple of interesting points that we hit upon such as the nature of belief, the non-linearness of the story, and the satire towards society that Kerouac incorporates. Perhaps some of you could hit on those things in the comments section. But I want to end by going back to the idea of balance. Just as Paradise and Moriarty balanced one another, I like the concept of balance in our personal lives. Kerouac could not have gone on the trips nor written the book had his mom not supported him both morally and financially. I like that we talked about how no one succeeds in a vacuum. Anyone who does anything has people willing to help them in some fashion. I’m reminded of a New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell, “Why do we associate Genius with Precocity.” It’s still in the essay section if you want to visit to NewYorker.com and check it out (There’s your plug. Can I have my money now?). But it’s about how we think of genius in terms of prodigies and that we often overlook late bloomers who develop slowly over a long period of time, often with someone supporting them while they write or paint or build their business.
I think we’d all recommend the book, but with a caveat: the more you know about post-war America, the better. Also, don’t expect a non-stop adventure. Some parts seemed (and I’m speaking just for myself here) a little insipid. I would read this with a friend or at the very least, with the intent of discussing it.
Some works mentioned during the discussion: Pimpin’ Pimpin’ by Katt Williams, Lolita by Nabakov, Dharma Bums and Big Sur both by Kerouac, “Howl” by Allen Ginsburg, Walden by Thoreau, The Illiad and The Odyssey by Homer