Wordy Wednesday – On the Road by Jack Kerouac
I like to read old classics. On the Road qualifies, or so I have heard.
Large pieces of it are autobiographical. I’m not sure what to make of that. Kerouac picked out pieces of his travels that were interesting, and then . . . what? Jazzed them up to make them more interesting? Added in fictional accounts of events to make the novel work?
I don’t think I like these options. Early on, when Sal has just left his aunt’s house to travel to Denver, he finds himself almost exactly halfway between where he was and where he is going. So of course he has a moment where he feels this divide keenly. Of course! Because that’s where a character in a poorly written novel would also feel the divide. But with the autobiographical elements, I can’t tell whether this is actually what Kerouac felt when he started traveling, or what he thought he should have felt so he claimed to feel it. This ‘maybe-true-maybe-not’ push and pull ruins any powerful moment in the story for me. It could be true! But it could be false. But maybe! But maybe not.
It’s not interesting, because I’m not trying to solve this novel. I want to read books, draw something from them, learn from them. From On the Road, I’m learning that my patience has limits. That’s good, I guess.
There’s also the part where, in Des Moines, Sal checks out some high school girls walking home. It’s a very brief footnote. I just went right ahead and chalked that up to “Oh, it was, um, a different time.” Then I moved on.
But this “maybe true, maybe false” play isn’t entirely why I don’t On the Road.
The novel has a strange obsession with how fast people are driving. “Then he took off, going seventy down the road,” or “‘I tell you, we did ninety the whole way down!’” Just a strange aspect of the novel. Very strange.
They get pulled over by the police more than once during their aimless driving back and forth across the country. I kept hoping the police would shoot somebody, just to make goddamn something happen.
I have this creeping sensation that On the Road is the original ‘bro’ novel. Kerouac – sorry, I mean Sal – hangs out with his buddies, gets drunk, sleeps with women (sometimes his friend’s girlfriends), and generally bro’s about. The first half of the novel, anyway.
In the second half of the book, Sal and Dean end up listening to a lot of music in bars. It’s jazz, and it fills them up, possesses them with a crazy spirit of action and moves them emotionally. I was into this part – I can fully understand the power of song.
At the same time, there isn’t any growth from them as a result. It’s like they just acknowledge this amazing thing, and immediately return to being their old, uninteresting selves. I like to imagine this as their “bros at a Dave Matthews concert” phase. I can picture them high-fiving and pointing out women in the crowd for each other to stare at. Anyway, with the introduction of music into Sal and Dean’s lives, I had hoped there might be the beginnings of a character arc here, in the last quarter of the book. I was mistaken. It goes nowhere.
I’ve been told that this novel is “a great coming of age story” and that it’s about “trying to find out how to live in a crazy world, finding your place in a world that doesn’t make sense” and other such things. I like those kinds of stories. I like a ton of different story types!
But On the Road doesn’t feel like a coming of age story; it reads as though Sal has found his place, drinking and sleeping around. It doesn’t feel like Sal is trying to find out how to live, it feels like he knows how to live, and it’s just not enough for him. He isn’t happy because he doesn’t try to be happy. But the story does nothing with this conflict! It’s just more of “and then I went here and drank and slept with a girl, or I wanted to sleep with a girl and didn’t, and then I left and went there, and then there,” on and on.
In the end, nothing is really learned, either by the characters or the reader. I was very disappointed in this supposed ‘classic’ novel. It’s dry and boring and, worst of all, tedious. Reading it became a chore very shortly into the book. I do not recommend this book.
Ultimately, I will most likely view On the Road as an unpleasant smear on the highway of American literature, just as the Dave Matthews Band is an unpleasant smear on the music scene. I give this book my lowest rating: one Dave Matthews.
Posted on September 12, 2012, in Wordy Wednesdays and tagged beat generation, bro novel, carlo marx, dave matthews band, dean moriarty, jack kerouac, on the road, sal paradise. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.