Book Review: Jack Kerouac – On the Road

Jack Kerouac – On the Road.


I love worn battered covers from charity shops!

Kerouac is an author I have never read before, yet in dissertation seminars over the past year he cropped up a lot. It seemed like loads of my peers were extremely taken by On the Road – and indeed the whole Beat generation. When I found this copy in a charity shop I noticed that the small- print on the front of this book describes it as ‘The Beat Generation’s Classic Novel of sex, jazz and freedom,’ all of which sounded pretty great to me so I decided it was time to give Kerouac a go.

This novel is a semi-autobiographical account of Kerouac’s own adventures with his friends. The protagonist Sal Paradise is Kerouac himself and the plot follows the trips that him, and his main friend Dean Moriaty (Neal Leon Cassady) take. The drive of the plot is fairly loose, a lot happens on the road trips that Dean and Sal take together; there are jazz clubs, women, recreational drugs and heaps of hitch hiking. However ultimately there isn’t much sense of moving forwards in this book.

The boys are mad, bad and wild – idealistically free, they aren’t tied down by jobs, family or relationships instead they choose their own adventures. Long walks down the freeway in the rain trying to hitch hike and living off apple pie whilst crossing states aren’t constraints – they are an unhindered lifestyle. However what we come to realise is that they actually spend a lot of time taking advantage of people and situations. Dean in particular is extremely promiscuous; he marries three times within the novel but leaves wives with the conviction that they are ‘whores’. He even abandons one with his children in order to spend time with Sal in jazz bars, drinking and pursuing prostitutes.

However, as little as I care for the story the writing is what sets the novel on fire. Dean Moriaty is a feckless man, but Kerouac’s descriptions of him – full of enthusiasm ‘rubbing his belly’ with excitement like a child, and just jumping around loving everyone one so wildly and happily really tickle you. You get excited with him; he is the light at the centre of the text. I think that this enthusiasm for people and for excitement is captured perfectly in this quote:

‘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.’

Isn’t that a fantastic description? You can’t help but become enthused yourself by his words. And Kerouac’s writing style could not be more perfect to describe this unorthodox life. Despite having prepped the story meticulously in notebooks for years, recording and detailing the events. When it comes to writing the novel, Kerouac taped together paper to form a one hundred and twenty foot roll so that it might flow continuously through his type writer. He then sat down and wrote the whole novel in three weeks. It’s the long sentences with lots of strange description, an eye for familiar details and the and the repetition that keep this book moving and exciting.

For me therefore I had a bit of a love hate relationship with the novel. Re-wind to my teenage years and I probably would have fallen in with the free spirited recklessness depicted. Now I just see the protagonists as beat-out, a bit worn down and distasteful (the feminist in me is raging at Dean’s treatment of his wives…). However I can’t help but fall a little in love with the writing, it evokes some of that wanderlust in me and I can’t help but want to hitchhike with nothing but seven dollars and apple pie to feed me.

Be honest with me now – what are your thoughts on this novel? Have any of you watched the film? I’ve heard good things about it, but I generally hate film adaptions of books so I’m undecided as to if it’s worth a watch! Let me know either way!



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