Thursday, September 03, 2009

Fiction Review: On the Road

My family loves our road trips. Every summer, we take long road trips from the East Coast to Oklahoma or South Dakota to visit family, making stops along the way, seeking out cool roadside diners, and enjoying the freedom of the road. I’d heard that On the Road by Jack Kerouac was the quintessential road trip novel, so I started it during a shorter trip to New York State two weeks ago.

The novel, which was autobiographical, centers on budding writer Sal Paradise (based on Kerouac) and his friend, Dean Moriarty, who take various cross-country trips, exploring America. In between trips, Sal lives a somewhat normal life, writing (and publishing) a novel and living with his aunt in New York City. Dean is a wild younger man who grew up partly in reform school and who strives to live life to its fullest. This exciting philosophy draws Sal in and entices him to follow Dean cross country.

Sal hitchhikes on his first trip from New York to Denver and, later, on to San Francisco. He travels by bus, train, and by catching rides with strangers, traveling through small towns and open countryside. Later, he and Dean travel together in Dean’s car, visiting friends across the U.S., partying hard, and living life. Here, after Dean’s car died, they’ve gotten a ride with some strangers in exchange for gas money, and talk excitedly about their life philosophy from the backseat:

“Oh, man! man! man!” moaned Dean. “And it’s not even the beginning of it – and now here we are at last going east together, we’ve never gone east together, Sal, think of it, we’ll dig Denver together and see what everybody’s doing although that matters little to us, the point being that we know what IT is and we know TIME and we know that everything is really FINE.” Then he whispered, catching my sleeve, sweating, “Now you just dig them in front. They have worries, they’re counting the miles, they’re thinking about where to sleep tonight, how much money for gas, the weather, how they’ll get there – and all the time they’ll get there anyway, you see. But they need to worry and betray time with urgencies false and otherwise, purely anxious and whiny, their souls really won’t be at peace unless they can latch onto an established and proven worry and having once found it they assume facial expressions to fit and go with it, which is, you see, unhappiness, and all the time it all flies by them and they know it and that too worries them no end.

As you can see, On the Road features a unique writing style. First published in 1955, the novel has been said to define the beat generation, and, apparently, Dean became something of a cult figure. Kerouac’s writing varies between vivid descriptions of the towns and cities and scenery they travel through and rambling dialogue, like what I’ve quoted above. There are also long descriptions of jazz or “bop” as they refer to it, as they go to all-night jazz clubs in New York and San Francisco.

This was certainly different from any novel I’ve ever read before. The road trips – filled with hitchhiking, partying, and all-night driving – were quite different from the family road trips we take every year, but I still enjoyed the idea of traveling and exploring the country that the novel illustrates. I also enjoyed reading about the time period – set in the late 40’s – ands especially details of the cars, the towns, and the prices. I’m glad I read this classic.

Penguin Classics, 307 pages.


  1. I really should try to read this book again some day. I started it a long time ago and just couldn't get into the writing. But I have learned that I am somewhat of a mood reader...and perhaps I was just not in the right place for this one when I tried it. Thanks for the review!

  2. Wendy -

    I can understand why you didn't get into it - it is definitely a very unique style of writing and takes a little getting used to. But once I did get used to it, I enjoyed the story...and, of course, its cultural significance is interesting, too.