On the Road
The most impressive character in this book is Dean, "who had the tremendous energy of a new kind of American saint." Who could not love this wild character? Interestingly enough, not many of the characters in the book like him or they just don’t know what to think of him, for instance, Sal’s Aunt, his other relatives, Jane (bothered by his jumping around), and Old Bull Lee who warned Sal that they would never get to California if they went with this nut. In any case Kerouac created a new archetype when he created Dean. The best description of him is Sal’s of Dean as a parking attendant:
The most fantastic parking-lot attendant in the world, he can back a car forty miles an hour into a tight squeeze and stop at the wall, jump out, race among fenders, leap into another car, circle it fifty miles an hour in a narrow space, back swiftly into tight spot, HUMP, snap the car with the emergency so that you see it bounce as he flies out; then clear to the ticket shack, sprinting like a track star, hand a ticket, leap into a newly arrived car before the owner’s half out, leap literally under him as he steps out, start the car with the door flapping, and roar off to the next available spot, arc, pop in, brake, out, run; working like that without pause eight hours a night, evening rush hours and after-theater rush hours, in greasy wino pants with a frayed fur- lined jacket and beat shoes that flap.
and . . .
He watched over my shoulder as I wrote stories, yelling, "Yes! That’s right! Wow! Man!" and "Phew!" and wiped his face with his handkerchief. "Man, wow, there’s so many things to do, so many things to write! How to even BEGIN to get it all down and without modified restraints and all hung-up on like literary inhibitions and grammatical fears . . . Dean never reduces his energy. Kerouac keeps him pumping the whole way through. It’s easy to believe why Sal follows him around "just to see what he’ll do."
The next funniest image in this book are the two Minnesota drivers with the flat bed motoring to L.A. picking up hitchhikers:
The greatest ride in my life was about to come up, a truck, with a flatboard at the back, with about six or seven boys sprawled out on it, and the drivers, two young blond farmers from Minnesota, were picking up every single soul they found on that road–the most smiling, cheerful couple of handsome bumpkins you could ever wish to see, both wearing cotton shirts and overalls, nothing else; both thick-wristed and earnest, with broad howareyou smiles for anybody and anything that came across their path. I ran up, said "Is there room?" They said, "Sure, hop on, ‘sroom for everybody."
They’d done this about five times now; they were having a hell of a time. They liked everything. They never stopped smiling. I tried to talk to them–a kind of dumb attempt on my part to befriend the captians of our ship–and the only responses I got were two sunny smiles and large white cornfed teeth.
This book is 100% American. It’s energy and freedom is American. It’s chaos is American. It’s sweep is American. Sal and his friends just explode westward. In San Fransisco looking west he says that he had "run out of America" and it was time to head back. The detailed geography is also American. Being from Denver myself, I was amazed at the details he put in his story such as street names and areas of the town. His details about the mountain town of Central City are also accurate. There are not two many internationally known books which have Denver street names in them. It’s a book Americans can call their own. I also like the subtle slams against Roland Major who had been to France and had nothing to say but how great it was there. In Central City his mind is still in France, he refuses to help his friends, and just sits in his chair and babbles about experiences that those around him can’t relate to. This issue came up again when Sal was traveling in the bus across New Mexico reading a French novel. He stopped reading because he "preferred to read the American scenery." The chaos and energy and superficiality and friendliness of Americans gets expressed in this book. Exchange students going to America should read it before they go.
Although this book’s open treatment of sex was, I’m sure, shocking to the general 1950s audience, today his insistance that sex be tied to something greater even rings a bit conservative:
Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together; sophistication demands that they submit to sex immediately without proper preliminary talk. Not courting talk–real straight talk about souls, for life is holy and every moment is precious.
This is the second book that I have read in which "Blue Books" are mentioned. The other book was an autobiography of Louis L’Amour, the Western writer. The Blue Books seem to have been a series of tiny paperback books of the classics. I wonder if they are still around.
I thought it was ironically funny that Sal and the Mexican girl were having such a great time together, such an innocent time, until they both suspected each other of being a whore and pimp. Kerouac describes this fall well:
"Terry," I pleaded with all my soul. "Please listen to me and understand, I’m not a pimp." An hour ago I’d thought SHE was a hustler. How sad it was. Our minds, with their store of madness, had diverged. Kerouac’s descriptions put you there:
South Main Street, where Terry and I took strolls with hot dogs, was a fantastic carnival of lights and wildness. Booted cops frisked people on practically every corner. The beatest characters in the country swarmed on the sidewalks–all of it under those soft Southern California stars that are lost in the brown halo of the huge desert encampment LA really is. You could smell tea, weed, I mean marijuana, floating in the air, together with the chili beans and beer.
The whole episode with the Mexicans painted a picture of the slower, more relaxed life of theirs:
"Sure, baby, mana." It was always mana. For the next week that was all I heard–mana, a lovely word and one that probably means heaven." . . .
and when it ended:
Emotionlessly she kissed me in the vineyard and walked off down the row. We turned at a dozen paces, for love is a duel, and looked at each other for the last time. "See you in New York, Terry," I said. She was supposed to drive to New York in a month with her brother. But we both knew she wouldn’t make it. At a hundred feet I turned to look at her. She just walked on back to the shack, carrying my breakfast plate in one hand. I bowed my head and watched her. Well, lackadaddy, I was on the road again.
This books’ chaos only increases in the second half. Here, a crazy night in Houston:
. . . and found a real gone dumb girl who was out of her mind and just wandering, trying to steal an orange. She was from Wyoming. Her beautiful body was matched only by her idiot mind. I found her babbling and took her back to the room. Bull was drunk trying to get this young Mexican kid drunk. Carlo was writing poetry on heroin. Hassel didn’t show up till midnight at the jeep. We found him sleeping in the back seat. The ice was all melted. Hassel said he took about five sleeping pills. Man, if my memory could only serve me right the way my mind works I could tell you every detail of the things we did. Zoom!
Back and forth across the country they go, painting its large expanse with half experiences to the tune of:
I bought a loaf of bread and meats and made myself ten sandwiches to cross the country with again . . .
And it is in the second half that Dean starts to decay, but only exteriorly. His ever fresh madness knows nothing but continual eruption:
Dean stands in the back, saying, "God! Yes!"–and clasping his hands in prayer and sweating.
It is only his body and his reputation which begin to deteriorate. Here, after Camille kicked out them out of the apartment in San Fransisco:
I looked at him. He was wearing a T-shirt, torn pants hanging down his belly, tattered shoes; he had not shaved, his hair was wild and bushy, his eyes bloodshot, and that tremendous bandaged thumb stood supported in midair at heart-level (he had to hold it that way), and on his face was the goofiest grin I ever saw. He stumbled around in a circle and looked everywhere. "Eh?" he said. "Eh? Eh?" We racked our brains for where to go and what to do. I realized it was up to me. Poor, poor Dean–the devil himself had never fallen farther; in idiocy, with infected thumb, surrounded by the battered suitcases of his motherless feverish life across America and back numberless times, an undone bird. "Let’s walk to New York," he said, "and as we do so let’s take stock of everything along the way–yass."
Then Galatea rails him:
"You have absolutely no regard for anybody but yourself and your damned kicks. All you think about is what’s hanging between your legs and how much money or fun you can get out of people and then you just throw them aside. Not only that but you’re silly about
it. It never occurs to you that life is serious and there are people trying to make something decent out of it instead of just goofing all the time." That’s what Dean was, the holy goof.
And Dean’s response to Sal when they are alone after Dean has been totally scolded and harangued for his piggish and disgusting ways:
"Ah, man, don’t worry, everything is perfect and fine." He was rubbing his belly and licking his lips.
Dean is such an exuberant and holy Beat character, that descriptions of him seem beyond words. Kerouac gets close with descriptions like this:
It was remarkable how Dean could go mad and then suddenly continue with his soul–which I think is wrapped up in a fast car, a coast to reach, and a woman at the end of the road–calmly and sanely as though nothing had happened. and when Sal realizes that Dean is coming from New York to San Fransisco to visit him:
Suddenly I had a vision of Dean, a burning shuddering frightful Angel, palpitating toward me across the road, approaching like a cloud, with enormous speed, pursuing me like the Shrouded Traveler on the plain, bearing down on me. I saw his huge face over the plains with the mad, bony purpose and the gleaming eyes; I saw his winds; I saw his old jalopy chariot with thousands of sparking flames shooting out from it; I saw the path it burned over the road; it even made its own road and went over the corn, through cities, destroying bridges, drying rivers. It came like wrath to the West. I knew Dean had gone mad again. It was like the imminent arrival of Gargantua; preparations had to be made to widen the gutters of Denver and foreshorten certain laws to fit his suffering bulk and bursting ecstasies.
The description of the Cadillac they delivered to Chicago after what they had done to it is outrageous:
At intermissions we rushed out in the Cadillac and tried to pick up girls all up and down Chicago. They were frightened of our big, scarred, prophetic car. In his mad frenzy Dean backed up smack on hydrants and tittered maniacally. By nine o’clock the car was an utter wreck; the brakes weren’t working any more; the fenders were stove in; the rods were rattling. Dean couldn’t stop it at red lights, it kept kicking convulsively over the roadway. It had paid the price of the night. It was a muddy boot and no longer a shiny limousine. (That’s hilarious!)
On the bus from Detroit, Sal sits next to a girl in which Kerouac put everything that he was trying to escape–dullness. The description of her dullness and Sal’s reaction it is a classic:
Exhausted, Dean fell asleep in the bus that roared across the state of Michigan. I took up a conversation with a gorgeous country girl wearing a low-cut cotton blouse that displayed the beautiful sun-tan on her breast tops. She was dull. She spoke of evenings in the country making popcorn on the porch. Once this would have gladdened my heart but because her heart was not glad when she said it I knew there was nothing in it but the idea of what one should do. "And what else do you do for fun?" I tried to bring up boy friends and sex. Her great dark eyes surveyed me with emptiness and a kind of chagrin that reached back generations and generations in her blood from not having done what was crying to be done–whatever it was, and everybody knows what it was. "What do you want out of life?" I wanted to take her and wring it out of her. She didn’t have the slightest idea what she wanted. She mumbled of jobs, movies, going to her grandmother’s for the summer, wishing she could go to New York and visit the Roxy, what kind of outfit she would wear–something like the one she wore last Easter, white bonnet, roses rose pumps, and lavender gabardine coat. "What do you do on Sunday afternoons?" I asked. She sat on her porch. The boys went by on bicycles and stopped to chat. She read the funny papers, she reclined on the hammock. "What do you do on a warm summer’s night?" She sat on the porch, she watched the cars on the road. She and her mother made popcorn. "What does your father do on a summer’s night?" He works, he has an all-night shift at the boiler factory, he’s spent his whole life supporting a woman and her outpoppings and no credit or adoration. "What does your brother do on a summer’s night?" He rides around on his bicycle, he hangs out in front of the soda fountain. "What is he aching to do? What are we all aching to do? What do we want?" She didn’t know. She yawned. She was sleepy. It was too much. Nobody could tell. Nobody would ever tell. It was all over. She was eighteen and most lovely, and lost.
With this book, Kerouac strives to break out of a world that does not represent the new, loose, crazy energy that was beginning to brew in the country at the time. He is trying to create a new writing style, a new world, a new yea-saying drive for life. Here, symbolically, Sal aimlessly wanders the streets in Denver:
At lilac evening I walked with every muscle aching among the lights of 27th and Welton in the Denver colored section, wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy kicks, darkness, music, not enough night.
In general, I felt a strong connection to this book. The story rambles, but it never gets old because it never stops geographically. The reader is always "on the road" following these guys in their crazy adventures. In creating the character Dean, Kerouac created a literary archetype. Dean is undying energy and craziness and motion and explosion. The character of Dean and the sense of offering something new and fresh make this book a classic in our time.
In the introduction to my edition, Ann Charters describes the megalomania that was involved in the three-week (!) process of writing this book:
Joan Kerouac’s wife at the time] had taken a job as a waitress, and when she got home she fed Jack pea soup and coffee; he took Benzedrine to stay awake. Joan was impressed by the fact that Jack sweated so profusely while writing _On the Road_ that he went through several T-shirts a day. He hung the damp shirts all over the apartment so they could dry. Kerouac started his book in early April 1951. By April 9, he had written thirty-four thousand words. By April 20, eighty six thousand. On April 27, the book was finished, a roll of paper typed as a single-spaced paragraph 120 feet long. He showed it triumphantly to Holmes, who was astonished at its appearance. Holmes remembered that Kerouac was ecstatic at having established "a new trend in American literature."
And I liked Charter’s description of the book’s text flow:
The effect on the reader is exhilarating, because Sal is so swept up in his presentation of what’s happening that one thing follows another without reflection or explanation.
And her general judgment of the book, I feel, hits the mark:
On the Road can be read as an American classic along with Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn and F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby as a novel that explores the theme of personal freedom and challenges the promise of the "American dream."
(Kerouac’s comment on the foreign editions of his books, 1966.)