The previous knowledge I had of this book wasn’t actually about the book – it was about people’s reactions to the book. When you pick this up, you’re also picking up the reputation of the book, and for me, it made for incredibly difficult reading.
I’ve heard many people refer to this book as their bible and that they’ve read it until it fell apart, marking up pages with their reactions or because a certain word or sentence or paragraph struck them with beauty or longing. This concerned me because I was worried I wouldn’t get it. I want to be in with the Kerouac lovers and their secret ways, but what if I hated it? What if this was a club that I wanted to join, but the truth of the book went over my head?
I’ve also heard many people say they loved it when they were younger but when they went back and read it years later they didn’t like it. This makes me suspicious because people say the same thing about Catcher in the Rye. I love that book, but many people say you only like Holden when you’re young and when you go back and read it later you realize the book isn’t that great. It also feels snobby. “Oh yes… that book. I read it when I didn’t know a thing about life and thought it was great, but now that I’m older and mature and have had real life experiences, I realize how silly and naive it is.”
And this brings me to my next obstacle before I even opened the book: hating something because it’s popular. I get it. I understand that there are times when something is so THE BEST THING EVER!!! that you don’t want to have anything to do with it. I felt this way about the movie Titanic. Everyone was talking about how it changed their lives and I was all “Yeah, no.” (I did catch it on HBO or something years later, and yes, it is a good movie.) My sister feels this way about Facebook. She is determined to be the last person on Earth who doesn’t have an account. People feel this way about a lot of authors because it’s cool to not like the mainstream. Looking at reviews and general conversation about On The Road, there’s a lot of “Ugh. I have no interest in reading that book. What’s the point?” This made me want to like it, because fuck that logic, and it also made me ready to hate it, because fuck Kerouac. Win win!
With these thoughts, I settled in and began to read.
And stopped. And started again. And stopped. And flipped back a few pages. And read the wikipedia entry. And started again. And was frustrated with it.
I have a confession: I didn’t realize this was a novel until a good way in when people kept referring to the main character as Sal. Sal? How is that a nickname? When I got to the wiki page I was all “Oh. I feel dumb.” Of course he changed it into a novel because then he could tell the truth while not having to get the facts perfect. I approve of this.
I immediately lost track of which character was which. Because they were based on real people I kept trying to remember who was Allen Ginsberg and forgetting who the characters were. I felt like I should make a chart of everyone and how they knew each other.
Of course I was able to remember Dean. Oh, Dean. We’ll get to you later.
The language threw me for quite awhile. I tend to like books that have their own rhythm and slang and language and dialect. It takes me a few pages to get into it, but then I’m good to go. But I kept getting hung up and getting frustrated and thinking about how people carry around tattered copies with notes frantically scribbled in the margins. Were the words that I was failing to comprehend someone else’s mantra?
And then I got angry with the entire thing. I decided that Sal was an elitist white boy who was slumming for fun. Sure, there were times when he ran out of food and had to suck on cough drops to keep going, but he was able to wire his aunt to get money if he needed it. I never got the sense that he was going to get abandoned somewhere. He always had the option to go home. This made me even angrier when he would wax poetic about how wonderful it must have been to be a slave and only have one purpose in life. How wonderful it must have been to feel the sun on your back while you worked. How wonderful it must have been to see a job completed when you returned home from a day of work. Later he meets up and falls in love with a beautiful Mexican girl. He gets a job picking cotton and loves the work because he can rest on the warm soil and enjoy the feeling of his body as he moves through the field. He quickly realizes he’s not cut out for the work and when his Mexican love and her boy come to help, he is heartbroken that their bodies have been designed for this kind of work and his has not. Happily, he can pick up and leave anytime he wants because he can. All those other folks who have to do this so they can get paid and just barely get by? How lovely it must be to only have that one purpose in life.
Are you fucking kidding me?
At this point I had a long back and forth email conversation with a friend who proudly subscribes to On The Road as a bible. She has a tattered copy. She loved it in high school, in college, and now. She was really depressed that I wasn’t getting it and I felt like I was letting her down. She pointed out that Sal is sad that his body is useless when it comes to real work and that the only thing he can do is sit and write. He is jealous of those who can create with their bodies, either through physical work or through jazz. The black jazz players have experienced things that Sal never can and he is in awe of their music and what it does to him.
I get it, but I was still really aggravated at the romanticized notion of what life must be like if you’re not while. For a lot of people, it really sucked.
However, this email exchange did get me motivated to get back to the book and just read it without judgement and to put aside its reputation. This kicked me into a different mindset and I really enjoyed Sal’s last trip.
And now we get to Dean.
Dean exhausted me, and not in a good way. If you’ve never experienced someone in full on mania, you are very lucky. Kerouac does an amazing job capturing the nonstop motion of Dean and while I did not enjoy these parts, I do realize that it’s incredibly good writing. My problem was that Dean frustrated me because he is so out of control and everyone loves it, or at least accepts it. They let him lead them, they get swept up in his mania, they make excuses for him, and they love him. It drove me crazy. At times I actually got physically uncomfortable because I wanted someone to walk away from him and be done or at least try to take control over the relationship or realize how he was not a good friend. (More on that last part in a bit.) I hated that he was the energy behind everyone because he’s so destructive.
I don’t know if this was an intentional metaphor or if it came from reality, but Dean’s relationships are just like his cars. He gets a new one, mostly by stealing it, fills it with friends and plans, and then runs it until it is unfixable. Several times Sal calculates how long it takes Dean to drive a long distance and it is ridiculous. He doesn’t need sleep when he’s manic and he pushes the car as hard as he can. As soon as it won’t run, he grabs another and away he goes. His friends are the same way. If someone is useful to him, he latches on. His energy either willingly sweeps them along or overpowers their hesitance and off they go. When something happens where a friend slows him down or somehow judges him or angers him, the friend is cast aside. And when it comes to his women, they are sometimes as wrecked as the cars.
Again, while these passages made me twitchy, I was really impressed by the writing. I felt out of control. But I also felt incredibly irritated that no one else seemed to see this as a problem. Well, not Sal or other main characters. There were a few stops where Dean was told he couldn’t stay long and it would be a good idea if he didn’t come back.
I’m skipping Dean and his women entirely. I know people are not going to like this because they see his relationships as a driving and important force in the book, but I can’t do it. The way women are portrayed in this book would double this review and it’s already exhausting.
We get to Sal’s final trip and I really liked it. Part of it was because of the emails with my friend, but a bigger part was that Sal was going solo. His latest book had been published, he had some money in the bank and he realized he could just pick up and go. This, of course, it was draws many people to this book – the longing to just pick up and go.
And Sal does go. He decides he wants to visit friends and see parts of the country that he misses.
And then Dean decides he needs to be part of this and Kerouac writes my favorite passage of the entire book:
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 wings; 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.
My stomach sank at this. I wanted Sal to be his own man. I also paused because, holy shit, that is fantastic writing.
And this brings me to my final frustration and the end of this review: Sal’s realization of Dean. (Spoiler alert!) Dean, Sal and Stan head to Mexico and full on debauchery. They want to squeeze every drop out of life in this moment. They breathe in freedom. I understand again why people revere this book.
And then Sal gets sick.
He becomes a useless car and Dean must abandon him.
In this moment, Sal realizes who Dean is and that while people want this madness, at some point it will burn. You can’t expect him to be faithful to his friends. Everyone in his life shrugs his madness off and excuses him as just being Dean. The few people who do cut him loose still make excuses for him, knowing he’ll never change and why would you want him to?
I was really looking forward to this moment. The entire book was a love letter to Dean, and now that Sal realizes that he too can be set aside, there was going to be a flowing chapter about realization and despair and longing and abandonment.
And in the middle of this, he forgives him. He at least knows Dean’s life is a mess and understands that Dean had to leave him behind in order to get back to it. But still… This entire madness leads up to forty-five words.
But this isn’t my story. This isn’t me wanting to express my anger and irritation at Dean. This is Sal’s story and his Dean and his understanding of who the man is.
I understand why this book is worshiped. I understand why people clutch it to their hearts and want to be on the road. I understand how and why people love it so much.
I didn’t, but I’m OK with that. It wasn’t my language and it wasn’t my journey.
For those of you who have had to replace your copy because the spine finally gave up and pages fell out, I get it.