Jack Kerouac, with his most well-known novel On the Road, captured the zeitgeist of a generation and established himself as a powerful voice of the ‘Beats’. Supposedly written over just three weeks in a frenzied creative process of ‘spontaneous prose’ (involving hundreds of sheets of paper taped together and fed frenetically through Kerouac’s typewriter), this novel defined an age of disillusioned and alienated American youth. It appealed to a society desperately wanting to break free from a crippling culture of conformity. On the Road provides readers with a tantalizing landscape of thrill-seeking, narcotic-fuelled antics across the highways and back roads of America and Mexico – a novel that effervescently idealises the “purity of the road”.
Kerouac’s most famous novel traces the escapades of Sal Paradise – an autobiographical stand-in for the author – and Dean Moriarty, based on real-life counterpart Neal Cassady. Cassady’s many adventures on the road, with Kerouac and later with Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) & the Merry Pranksters in the 1960s, ensure he remains to this day a legendary figure amongst the countercultural set. The novel follows Sal as he heads out onto the road following a recent divorce. After experiencing a series of capers on his own, he winds up travelling cross-country with the ever fascinating Dean. Though Sal is our point of entry and narrative voice in this tale, it is Dean who shotguns the narrative. He is a captivating character; an energized madman constantly talking, moving, twitching, always eager for a party. His multiple exploits, romances and elopements, most notably with the charmingly desultory Marylou, are squeezed into the relatively short duration of the novel’s timeframe – resulting in a character that seems relentlessly on the verge of spontaneously combusting.
On the Road is preoccupied with movement, from Denver to Frisco to New York and Mexico; the voracious consumption of alcohol and drugs matches the crazed pace of the narrative and the improvisation employed by Kerouac’s unconventional storytelling. Sal and the gang are always on the verge of something; enlightenment seemingly – or simply of running out of money, petrol and patience with one another. When their antics appear to be coming to an end, a chance encounter or quick money transfer from Sal’s aunt pulls them back.
The exuberance of the story belies the emphasis Kerouac also places on the loneliness, despair and selfishness that prevails amongst the characters. The characters are striving for a personal liberty that in fact denies a social responsibility. Dean himself is ostensibly the life and soul of the party, acting in the community spirit, but proceeds to alienate those closest to him: transforming from “A western kinsman of the sun” to “by virtue of his enormous series of sins […] the Idiot, the Imbecile, the Saint of the Lot”.
This is a fantastic read that still inspires readers today. For those wanting to discover more of Kerouac’s works, there is a wide and varied selection out there. Though he will always be remembered for this novel, there are other works that provide similar delights. In a similar vein to On the Road, The Subterraneans (1958) encapsulates further San Francisco’s fast-paced 1950’s living. Though the intoxicated euphoria experienced by Kerouac’s characters is only temporary, his exhilarating stories continue to leave a lasting impression.