Nathan reviews On the Road by Jack Kerouac, Penguin Publishing Group, 1976, 320 pages
As the novel was written on one continuous roll of paper, so, too, does the novel feel like one continuous sentence. One thought flows right into the next with very little pause because of the abrupt jumps in narrative and location. Everyone is an old or new friend. Kerouac drops you in and tries to catch you up to speed before another sharp turn changes the landscape behind you once again. From city to city, street to street, house to house, the party and the adventure continue, change, and evolve in such a blur. Exploring–in every sense–is only part of the adventure for Sal and his rowdy, overlapping, and ever-changing New York, Denver, and San Francisco crews. Every one of them is looking for what they long after, what they hope will fill some part of life that is missing: a quick fix, a new adventure, love (or something close to it), or even an estranged father.
The flow of the prose is both gentle and poetic as well as chaotic in its own ways. The proper adjectives to describe how Kerouac writes are quite difficult to pinpoint. Imagine blending the grace of a butterfly with the proverbial bull in a china shop yet in a pleasing way. Somehow these two drastically different images mingle and dance to become what Kerouac portrays, wonderful yet perpetually on the edge of collapse. Like the interstate system and its smaller tributaries that crisscross the United States of America, so too does the thought process of the narrative at times interweave and seem to just go on without end only to abruptly hit a dead end, hiding a small alley or side road that continues the adventure. Jazz music comes to mind when reading On the Road. While the actual music itself may not have played the biggest part or influence with the book, the flow and improvisational aspect of the writing style feels much like the musical genre. The music of jazz also wonderfully represents the flow of those in the book as well. They sway and bounce to whatever is before them, adapting, adding, improvising just to make it through to the end of the next song, hoping one does not run out of records to play.
Throughout the book, one cannot help but feel like a tourist of sorts, taking in the sites and being amazed at the regional, the simple and the relatively mundane, right along with the narrator. Dizzying moments of excitement are incredibly common. Those in the book itself never seem to get tired of them. The sheer excitement about life itself is as silly as it is inspiring. Love was always something to be longed for and always just ahead, as was the loss. Back and forth, from coast to coast and back again goes Sal, meeting new and old acquaintances everywhere in between. One never knows who will show up or where or when. Living, in terms of this narrative, is always a surprise. Sal saying, “unforeseen events wait lurking to surprise you and make you glad you are alive to see,” illustrates this notion that anything could happen on these journeys back and forth across the country.
While surely dated by the terms (some not suited for a modern era any longer) and occurrences of the time period, the sentiment and wanderlust featured are timeless and transcend a simple era. The glimpse back to a relatively simpler (for some) time glorifies and makes fantasy of the road trip in many ways. It does the same for relationships, to some extent, exploring the fringe of what was acceptable for that time period. It romanticizes chasing your dreams, desires, and cravings, even if they are not what you ultimately want or need in life. Sometimes it is hard to tell the difference between all of those in life. Sal sure had a rough time making sense of it all as we followed him back and forth across the country. Still, the unrelenting id usually overwhelms each character at some point (or several). One could even argue that the id of the novel is incarnated in Dean, who acts as a faulty deity, always promising a nirvana but never delivering and always abandoning his worshippers.