On the Road


in Books and literature

This afternoon, I finished Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. The experience was a familiar one. To begin with, everything about the book was interesting: the language, the characters, the setting. But as it went, you got the increasingly powerful sense that everything described was pointless. The desperation of it is captured by a section from the end of part three:

All the cigarette butts, the bottles, the matchbooks, the come and the gone were swept up in this pile. Had they taken me with it, Dean would never have seen me again. He would have had to roam the entire United States and look in every garbage pail from coast to coast before he found me embryonically convoluted among the rubbishes of my life, his life, and the life of everybody concerned and not concerned.

Nobody was really doing anything, and it wouldn’t have mattered at all if everything described just hadn’t happened – disconnected stories and disconnected lives. The constant hyperbole on the part of the narrator contributes to that sense that nothing fits together, that everything is the superlative form of its genre, and that every statement has no real relevance beyond the moment in which it is made.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the book was the sort of communal madness described between the characters: when they seemed to understand one another while exchanging stories and meanings that were opaque to everyone else. You have to wonder if there’s anything to it, or whether both speakers and listeners are deluded about the content of their exchange. Whether they’re just talking to themselves in insane tongues, prompted by the noises around them. It makes you wonder if whatever mechanism that clicks to one side or another in the brain, separating the plausible from the inaccessibly strange, actually operates according to some comprehensible logic, or just based on strings of obscure past cues and approximations.

I probably came to the book looking for the wrong thing, not a glimpse into a previous and mad generation but some kind of message for the present. I suppose most such messages end up being cautionary ones, about how lives can just whiz around infatuated with destructive madness. By the end, I was reading it much too quickly. I was sick of the road long before the characters were ever able to be.

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Antonia May 11, 2006 at 4:09 pm

Thinly fictionalized autobiography, so best approached with that in mind, I think. I’d also read the “20 days to write” legend and, while that is only true of the manuscript rather than from concept to completion, I suppose that made me more forgiving. It certainly made the text echo the shambolic course of their lives and interactions.

It’s definitely a zeitgeist novel, rather than “Great Literature”. However, I do feel it consistently works. The scene it paints just isn’t very pretty and neither are the people. The evocation of a spiralling disengagement from society and the disintegration of promise in a self-destructive journey to nowhere, though not the context, does apply to different times though.

Milan May 11, 2006 at 4:18 pm


Apparently, On the Road was eventually written as a single monster manuscript: hundreds of typewritten pages that had been taped together to form a continuous spool for Kerouac’s benzadrine fueled three-week writing binge. If so, it’s remarkably coherent, if frequently bewilderingly over-zealous in descriptions of jazz.

I don’t know what makes a book “Great Literature.” I’ve read lots of examples and come away with very different ideas: in love with Lolita and powerfully annoyed by the sheer pretension of Ulysses. This book was definitely somewhere in the middle, with some sections that demonstrate both profound eloquence and an immersion in this particular life and long others that seem like the endless retelling of the same failed pursuit: east and west across America.

After reading the book, I listened to a forty minute rendition of Allen Ginsberg reading Howl. To me, the biggest difference is that Howl can at least partially be understood as an attempt at striking out against injustice. The kind of thoughtless, destructive, and indifferent narrators that you find in books like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas can impress me with their eloquence, but I am always disgusted by their sheer lack of appreciation and regard for other people, in any way beyond the kind of aesthetic idealization of them that the narrator of On the Road supplies over and over again.

PS. I was delighted to find a comment from you here.

B May 11, 2006 at 4:31 pm

I dig how all your book reviews are the story of you reading the book in question: Pride and Prejudice on the Manhattan subway and Snow Falling on Cedars under a bridge during a thunderstorm in Montreal. It’s the approach of someone who really wants to learn, to live, through the books – and someone who is clever enough to realize that a review can’t be disentangled from the reviewer.

That said, when it comes to a book like this, your unwillingness to try hard enough to let go of yourself keeps you from ever understanding what is being said. Judgment is a wall between you and the text.

Antonia May 11, 2006 at 4:45 pm

Yup – that’s the 20 days legend – the manuscript still existe see here (if the link works the way I’ve done it).
Ulysses was an unsuccessful experiment but attempting something on that scale was new and it did break new ground. Lolita is a fantastic book.

I guess I was going with gut instinct. It is literature not pap but working out how “Great” something is can have you dissecting the life out of the work and your reaction to it, then trying to make a judgement on dry components, when books which work best do so because their failings prove insignificant in the context of a well-integrated whole.

With Kerouac the immediacy of his prose drags you into tasting their world through the text. The fact that we get sick of the road first is unavoidable when narrating such, as you said, desperation and pointlessness. You want the characters to recognise that and get out, and seeing them fail to recognise the pit, or fail to drag themselves out, is frustrating, so it forces you to partly experience the exasperation, resignation and disgust their friends go through.

I’ve now seen some of your earlier and more positive reactions to the text but nuff skiving.

Milan May 11, 2006 at 4:54 pm


I don’t know if I already quoted it here, but my favourite quotation from On the Road is:

But then they danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled along as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’

I read it while sitting in the field with the pheasant, out by Woodstock, and it captures the greatest saving grace of Sal Paradise, the narrator. That is to say, his sheer enthusiasm and commitment to the act of experiencing. The fervour of it takes it to a level beyond simple hedonism, and into the realm of a weird piety.

Anonymous May 11, 2006 at 9:22 pm

I could never forgive Dean for all the kids he left behind with abandoned mothers. Who cares who dynamic he is, how many stupid tricks me can pull off? The guy is basically a bastard, and well deserving of condemnation.

Milan May 11, 2006 at 9:41 pm


Having just returned from a Stop AIDS Society event, I agree completely. The extent to which everyone in On the Road (and perhaps the ‘beat generation’ it supposedly defines) is absurdly sexually irresponsible is perhaps the most dated feature of the book. At least, one should hope so.

Davi Ottenheimer May 15, 2006 at 7:10 am

Jack was trying to escape the hum-drum daily grind of false hope that his parents epitomized. We might judge him as reckless, but his writing suggests that he and his friends were trying to break new ground and explore in ways that had yet to be discovered. We enjoy the fruits of those who tried to challenge the norms, and we can learn from their mistakes without condemning their desire to learn, grow and experiment.

Milan August 15, 2007 at 4:52 pm

On the Road at 50: comments from NY Times readers

. March 12, 2008 at 8:54 am

Books most likely to be stolen:

1. Charles Bukowski
2. Jim Thompson
3. Philip K. Dick
4. William S. Burroughs
5. Any Graphic Novel

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