16 July 2009

Jack Kerouac, On the Road, 1957

— On the Road swings to the rhythms of 1950s underground America, jazz, sex, generosity, chill dawns and drugs, with Sal Paradise and his hero Dean Moriarty, traveller and mystic, the living epitome of Beat. Now recognized as a modern classic, its American Dream is nearer that of Walt Whitman than Scott Fitzgerald, and it goes racing towards the sunset with unforgettable exuberance, poignancy and autobiographical passion.

The big deal about On the Road was mostly lost on me when I read it back in the 1970s, at a time when its prominent reputation meant it should have made much more of an impact. After a recent second reading and having since learned more about Kerouac I can understand what set him off on his road back and forth across the US but the excess of stimulants still leaves this reader non-plussed. Neal Cassady, incarnated here as Dean Moriarty and being both the heart and tao of the book and the whole Beat Generation, was the focus around whom the more observant Kerouac bracketed his own search in the character of Sal Paradise. There are some great passages and the last trip into Mexico feels like an encore to an already epic story, the whole of which is written in rather sentimental style compared to his later ‘stream of consciousness’ approach. I still think he was intellectually lazy in comparison to Burroughs or Ginsberg but On the Road – or more specifically Dean Moriarty himself – still takes you on a fast and thrill-seeking ride, the impetus of which is hard to shake off.  PY


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