Tuesday, 5 October 2010

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

On the Road was first published in 1957 and is a largely autobiographical account of Jack Kerouac’s various road trips taken with his friends during the 1940s. All names were changed (to protect the not so innocent) and the story mostly features the characters Sal Paradise (based on Kerouac) and Dean Moriarty (based on real life person Neal Cassady) along with various other real life characters occurring throughout.

I have used this image from Wikipedia to show the different trips that Kerouac took and the book is about these journeys and about the drugs, casual sex and general naughtiness that went on while travelling the American highways. This book was originally written on a fifty-foot-long roll of paper and the narrative is realistic and vivid.

The novel overall has a fresh feel and I think this is because the idea of youth searching for more than the conformity of the society they are in is an idea which is being constantly being explored. This does not mean that the book is cliqued however as although the subject matter might not be original, the descriptions of their methods, ideas and the people they encounter is. Crossing the American continent is exhausting enough (I know, I did it) and Kerouac does not hide from the reader the sheer exhaustion, the dirty aspects, the arguments and broken friendships along the way.

One of the stronger aspects of the novel are the people that Sal and Dean encounter along the way. They have various conversations with drunks, travellers, drug addicts and poor immigrant workers all of whom often add more insight than Sal and his friends can provide. The friendship between Sal and Dean is also interesting and goes through many changes throughout as they spilt then meet up again.

A lot has been said on the bad behaviour of the characters and yes they take drugs, have wild parties, visit Mexican brothels and steal cars. This might not seem so shocking now but when you consider these guys were born before my grandmother it just goes to show that despite the fact that each generation thinks they invented teenage bad behaviour, they really didn’t.

There is no plot really, just the endless travels around which I think is the point. The book starts off as a celebration of youth while all the characters are young and free but as the novel progresses and the characters become older a sadness descends on the overall feel of the book. While their drug infused last adventure in Mexico might have been fun for the characters, I was left wondering why the character Dean was doing this while he had a wife who was pregnant and three other children in various states. I’m afraid I became a boring square and wondered when they were going to go home and face up to their responsibilities that THEY had created.

There was an even bigger sadness to come though after I finished the book and looked up what eventually happened to some of the characters long after the book was set. Kerouac died at 47 from cirrhosis caused by years of heavy drinking and his friend Neal Cassady died at 41 from exposure after passing out in the street in Mexico after a party. Perhaps these fates were inevitable when part of a generation collides with the society they live in, but really, was it worth it?

Would I recommend this? Well I was going to give a 3 star rating. But on reflection over a week later I am giving it 4 stars because its certainly given me a lot to think about.

Verdict 4/5

Posted by Jess


  1. Maybe I just read this one at the wrong time. I was 22 and had a six month old child at home with me and I just absolutely hated this one. :/

  2. You've made me want to read this even though I've never had the urge before. I think your comment about how every generation thinks they've invented teenage rebelliousness, but really hasn't, is perfect!

    Just 5 minutes ago I read a review of 'Howl' by Alan Ginsburg over at Life is a Patchwork Quilt. (Amazing coincidence!)

    That poem and the nonfiction The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe I highly recommend for another glimpse into the world of the Beats.

  3. I hated this one. It elicited a visceral reaction, more so than any book I have read in a long time.

  4. I started the first few pages and couldn't go on reading it.

    "despite the fact that each generation thinks they invented teenage bad behaviour, they really didn’t."

    I am sure in every generation, all of us and our grandmothers and parents have been really really naughty once. They just make you think you are the naughty one so that you will not find out how naughty they are! LOL..

  5. I'd agree with your review. I had mixed feelings about this one, but it gave me so much to think about. I had a chance to see the scroll in person in 2008. It was amazing!

  6. I've wanted to read this book since college. Finally found it at a used book store and hope to get to it before the year is over. Your review makes me want to read even more now. I had this huge thing with the Beat generation back in the day and would love to revisit it again.

  7. I liked this book a lot when I read it around the age of 15, but became increasingly uncomfortable and disillusioned with some of the values espoused by the beat men (the misogyny, and the general irresponsibility toward others you mention among them). On the Road was still an important reading experience for me, though. I love that you added that map to your review!

  8. I've never read this, but it sounds like something...well, not something I would "enjoy," per se, but something I would find worthwhile. Thanks for the review!

  9. Amanda - Im not sure if I enjo9yed reading it as much as I enjoyed what it gave me to think about afterwards (if that makes sense)

    Marieke - that is a coincidence, I'll check that out, thanks

    Stephanie - I just had to look up the word visceral LOL I think my husband would feel the same and really really hate it.

    JoV - it took me about 50 pages to get used to the writing, its quite unique.

    Avid Reader - lucky you! owned by some millionaire isn't it What a funny thing to buy.

    christina - it took me a while to get into it but as Ive said, I think the reading experience is a 3/5 but it has got me thinking

    Emily Jane - I did keep thinking throughtout 'oh why dont you lot just get a job FFS!' so I certainly didnt idolise them in the way that someone younger might have done. But then look how they all ended up, they never really grew up and that just makes it sad.

    Zara - its not an easy read so I wouldnt rush it up to the top of your TBR pile but a interesting piece of American Lit.

  10. I have an award for you on my blog! http://myreadersblock.blogspot.com/2010/10/award-time.html

  11. I absolutely, unequivocally adored this book, when I read it, in fact it started me on a journey, nay obsession through everything he wrote until I came out the other end with a new list of writers to obsess about. Although that was a few years ago so maybe now I'd be mentioning bed times & phoning if staying out late.