On the Road – Jack Kerouac

By Shubhajit Lahiri on 17 November 2008

“What’s your road, man? — holyboy road, madman road, rainbow road, guppy road, any road. It’s an anywhere road for anybody anyhow.”

That’s not the kind of question that an everyday Joe would ask; that’s not an inquiry that would lurk in the mind of a 9-to-5 desk clerk. Hell, that’s not the kind of thought that someone scrubbing for a mere existence in a drab world, living just another static life, in his routine environment, and doing stuff that is decided through rote and careful rationalization, would even dare let his perfectly chiselled mind waver to.

That’s precisely the kind of belief one would be enticed by who adheres to the maxim, “Road is where life is.” And On the Road, for those crazy venture-addicts, is the greatest bible that there ever was. It is a novel that would make the most cocooned of creatures to be hit by the road bug and actually start ‘living’ life.

Written in 1951, by Jack Kerouc – the original King of the Road, was a novel that eulogized the free-spirited life where boundaries, confines and borders cease to exist. And in the process it kick-started Beat Generation – one of the most fascinating American movements where life is equated with jazz (viz. Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong et al), hallucinatory drugs, free sex, smoke-filled cars, and above all, life on the road. For them there’s just one answer to the rhetoric question, “Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?”, and that being Heaven.

Though On the Road is considered the greatest book of this movement and Kerouac its unofficial spokesperson – which has been duly acknowledged by the venerated TIME magazine by including the book in its list of Greatest Novels of the 20th Century – Kerouac essentially formed a part of a hallowed trio also comprising of Allen Ginsberg and William H. Burroughs, the co-pioneers of the Beat Movement. And this semi-autobiographical novel chronicles Kerouac’s experiences on the road. Hence they are all there in the novel, with their names altered. However, it is someone called Neal Cassidy, a common friend of the enlightened troika, who formed the basis for the book’s most celebrated character – Dean Moriarty.

Narrated by Salvatore ‘Sal’ Paradise, an Italian-American resident of New Jersey, a writer by profession, and Kerouac’s terrific literary alter-ego, On the Road is a mesmerizing and one-of-its-kind travel-diary of the narrator, and its apotheosis is his unforgettable friendship with Dean, one of the craziest and alive characters one can ever hope to come across. It tells the tales of his journeys back and forth across America. It is a tale of New York, San Francisco, Denver, Detroit, New Orleans, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Mexico City. It is a free-flowing account of ‘nowness’ – a word that defined the willingness to reside in present without a worry for the future or attachment to the past. It is a madcap poetry to the Beat life, where all you need to survive is a car that does its 90 mph, beer cans, an uninterrupted supply of cigarettes, friends with whom you can talk all through the night and into the dawn, a few Benzedrine tablets to give you the kicks, and the singular beauty of hitch-hiking.

The novel is peppered with some of the most atypical characters – Carlo Marx, Chad King, Old Bull Lee, Ed Dunkel, Remi Boncoeur, with each representing the various constituents of the Beatific and the free spirits of the world. But the two protagonists – Sal and Dean, are the ones who really draw the readers out with their contrasting lives and yet their common passion. Where Sal is a home-grown, serious, sensitive, college educated intellectual with a steady income – an otherwise regular guy who one can relate to and be in sync with, Dean is an impulsive, irreverent, wildly unpredictable, rebellious, thoroughly alienated soul with an infectious method to his madness. As Sal so brilliantly states in one of his many explanations of who Dean really is, “He was simply a youth tremendously excited with life, and though he was a con-man, he was only conning because he wanted so much to live and to get involved with people who would otherwise pay no attention to him.”

On The Road wasn’t just anti-establishmentarian in its outlook, it was also non-conformist in its style and composition. Legend has it that Kerouac wrote it in an uninterrupted and truly inspired Benzedrine-fuelled three weeks’ session on a manual typewriter in his New York City loft, on a long scroll over 100 feet long. The book is devoid of crisp, literary sentences. It is instead based on improvised, absolutely free-flowing, stream-of-consciousness style of writing, where the words form a direct representation of the writer’s unedited and unadulterated thought processes. It was a memorable kick in the belly for the purists and conservatives. In fact Truman Capote once infamously remarked about the prose, “That’s not writing, that’s typing.” The book was a glorious tableau of a truly liberated form and style of narration.

The enormous impact of the book is as relevant today as it was groundbreaking then. Its tale of lost souls who dared to be free is timeless. Through its fascinating depictions of friendship, experiences on the road and the longing for ‘It’ – an expression that could signify anything from cigarettes and drugs to frenzy and exhilaration to salvation and bliss, the novel was way ahead of its time in its effortless and spontaneous jab at such bogus parameters like morality and preordained requisites for the so-called good and happy life sans adventure and enlightenment.

Some of the most iconoclastic stalwarts like Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and Jim Morrison have been enormously influenced by the novel. Dylan once remarked about the book, “It changed my life like it changed everyone else’s.” Lennon ushered a memorable tribute to the Beat legacy by including the word ‘Beat’ in the name of arguably the world’s greatest boy-band The Beatles, through a subtle change in its spelling. The book may also count such outstanding and legendary movies like Easy Rider, Paris Texas, Five Easy Pieces and Stranger than Paradise as part of its famous legacy. Indeed, the novel’s place in popular culture as well as among the pantheon of great literary works has been preserved for posterity.

“Somewhere along the line I knew there’d be girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me.” That sort of encapsulates the spirit and the essence of the book. I really feel a huge impulse to say to every bibliophile and lost souls and free people of this world regarding On the Road, “Dig it! Dig it!” And I’m sure, if Dean had been here with in my living room, he would have excitedly affirmed in his inimitable style, “Yass! Yass!”.

One response »

  1. Peace, hobo hippie. Back to pest you again. Laughing out loud. “On the Road” is the book that changed my life. It’s the first work of Jack’s that I read. With his stream of consciousness style, Jack breathed life into words. At the time, I was reading Hemingway and Steinbeck, master storytellers and great, great writers in the conventional sense of writing. Then fate intervened and I discovered Kerouac. His writing opened my mind to a lifestyle that I live to this day. If I hadn’t read “On the Road,” there would be no dharma beach bum. The second work of Jack’s that I read was Dharma Bum’s. Hence, my pseudonym. As a rucksack-wearing zen lunatic wanderer here along the Grand Strand, I dream of a world where “boundaries, confines and borders cease to exist.” Where everyone shares poetry and love regardless of his or her religious or political beliefs or his or her sexual preference or any other division that keeps human beings apart. Hobo hippie, thank you so, so much for sharing this great piece, Thank you for brilliantly “constructing” the beatnikhiway. Peace to you and yours and to everyone who shares your wonderful creation. Life truly is a journey and you have made my wandering much less restless.

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