I’ve decided that On the Road is like Catcher in the Rye for college kids: it’s blurbed on facebook and spoken about in an attempt to establish hipster legitimacy. “Oh YOU’VE read Kerouac? Yes, but I thought Dharma Bums was much better!” I’m still trying to find the connection between college stiffs and Sal Paradise, just like I’m still trying to find the connection between AP kids and Holden Caufield. I think it has something to do with vague senses of confusion and aimlessness. Rich kids that feel alienated from their parents cling to Holden as a callous renegade. And my friends and I college students live out their fantasies of complete irresponsibility through Sal. So I guess the connection is really in spirit, since none of the towels people I know have approached anything close to the craziness of the Road.
First, some reactions. Sal is 30 YEARS OLD in the book. He is not a kid. He’s already divorced and still lives with his “aunt” (Jack actually lived with his mom). He repeatedly refers to himself as a “college boy” although he is no boy, and certainly puts college on the back burner here. He drives across country to get back in home time for the spring semester. But he doesn’t like to be at home in the spring, so he sets off again to hitch more rides and hook up with more moms.
But the hero of the story is of course Dean Moriarty, who is so manic and unhinged he is famous for being manic and unhinged. The guys is considered the forerunner of the rock and roll archtype, but he didn’t play music, write books, write poetry, or act at all. No art. Dudeman just lived such a crazy life he was known all over the country. Just driving around, lying, stealing, bumming, chasing skirts, making babies, doing drugs, working railroads, talking incoherently ALOT, getting married, getting divorced, and getting married again. This all makes for great reading, mind you.
And how the story reads is half the battle (the other half is knowledge!). The prose is as rambly and incoherent and hopped up as the characters within it. Kerouac typed the book in one long continuous scroll over 4 days, sans punctuation, chapters, paragraphs etc. Swears he was not on amphetamines at the time either. The Scroll is sort of famous now and goes on a tour around the country (how appropriate) to libraries, museums and campuses. It explains what the Beat Generation was all about.
So Gertrude Stein, Hemingway, Fitzgerald and the like were the Lost Generation of World War I. Their work is characterized my the modernist attitudes: “the world has gone crazy, nothing makes sense anymore, the normal modes of literary expression are dead, let’s wander around and drink and write things exactly like we feel.” After World War II, Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S Burroughs and their ilk self-consciously decided they would be the the next generation. And so their crazy hyped up prose and poetry was lumped together in a self-fulfilling prophecy, and they were the Beat Poets.
All the running around, all the insanity, all the drinking and women exhausted me by the end. Afterward I wanted to just crawl in bed and get my scrambled head straight. I’m pretty sure I could only do maybe one week of the hard living they do on the road. I think I enjoy regular meals too much. That being said, I’m all for striking out West in better funded, slightly less irresponsible trip. But theres always school and work and gas to think about. I’ll probably just end up like every other kid my age with a touch of the wanderlust, and just be satisfied with talking about how much I loved reading the book.
“There are nights when I think Sal Paradise was right / Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together” -“Stuck Between the Stations”, The Hold Steady