Over the past few months, I’ve noticed a change in my bookshelf. I rearranged it recently and saw that the stocks of YA books I was reading about a year ago were outnumbered by multiple orange spines. Of course, anyone who’s ever been into a bookshop will know what I mean by ‘orange spines’: Penguin Classics. Lately, I’ve been on a mission to become as well-read in these as possible, and so far this has been shaping up pretty well. I finished the first of these Penguins a few weeks ago: Jack Kerouac’s On the Road.
First published in 1957, On the Road follows aspiring writer Sal Paradise through several years of his life as he travels across America, becomes invested in beat culture (which dominated underground America at the time) and interacts with his fascinatingly eccentric cast of friends, most notably the infamous Dean Moriarty. Alongside Allen Ginsberg’s Howl and William S. Burroughs’ Junky, Kerouac’s novel is among the most enduring portraits of the beginnings of alternative culture, and is often regarded as one of the great books of our time. I’ve wanted to read it for years, so I had fairly high expectations.
Before I go on, I should mention that On the Road is a book you’ll either hate so much that you’ll want to entirely destroy its existence, or that you’ll love so much that you’ll reread it until every last page has fallen out. There is little ‘in between’. When it was originally released it garnered mass praise but was also (unsurprisingly) heavily criticised by many major reviewers, too. More shockingly, though, is that a quick glance through the book’s Goodreads page still shows this as well: there are numerous 1-star reviews expressing thoughts of its ‘UNBELIEVABLE TERRIBLENESS’ and of how it’s nothing but ‘a half-hearted justification of stupid, self-destructive, irresponsible and juvenile attitudes’. Yet these sentiments are juxtaposed with ones of the 4- and 5-star kind, reviewers commenting on how the book’s beauty changed their lives. I find it fascinating that a book published almost sixty years ago can still divide us so much today.
It took me a long time to read the book – nearly four or five months, mainly because I was reading about three others at the time – yet I find myself in the latter group. One reason for this is its unique style of writing, which must be among the greatest and most beautiful things I’ve ever read. Kerouac may not have been a technically accomplished writer, but his work exerts emotion and passion that is beyond many more polished novelists. On the Road rambles and stumbles from one paragraph to another with the incredible energy and intensity of the characters, their surrounds and their story, yet Kerouac casts a glowing sense of almost romantic nostalgia over it all. It’s not exactly subtle, and it is certainly an acquired taste, but it is easily among the most incredible things a person can read: spontaneous, fearless, full of fiery vigour. It just flows so beautifully, and Kerouac uses the prettiest words and most beautiful phrases throughout – the best parts are akin to poured molasses. Take, for example, this famous passage:
I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn’t know who I was – I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I’d never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn’t know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost.
And, of course, the story itself is just as captivating. On The Road follows Sal as he drives, buses, and hitchhikes across America four times with his partner-in-crime Dean, meanwhile giving a captivating firsthand account of the time’s counterculture. Kerouac paints such an enticing picture of the US, one of incredible beauty. We see the vibrant reds and oranges of the West, the endearingly dangerous seediness of Chicago, the lively excitement of New York, the heady hangouts and experiences of the Beats, and the compelling images of all the fascinating people that Sal meets across the country. All of this is written about in the greatest prose, painting wonderful pictures in the mind of the reader. It is the kind of thing that makes you want to immediately buy a one-way ticket to America and travel across the country just like Sal and Dean…
On top of this, On the Road‘s characters are equally as fascinating. They are developed to an incredible degree, and perhaps this is due to the fact that they were based on real people (the book was originally a memoir until Kerouac’s publishers forced him to change the names). And yeah, most of the protagonists contain major flaws, ones that in many other cases would cause the reader to feel nothing but blind hatred towards them. The frenzied, ‘could care less’ charisma of Dean endears us to him at first, yet as the story progresses we witness the lack of regard he has for anyone around him – the way he thinks it’s perfectly okay to leave the latest of his wives at any given moment with no intention of returning, the way he deserts a lethally ill Sal in Mexico. We see that he is, in fact, not an overly nice person. Yet we don’t hate Dean, because we find him – the way he interacts with the country, the beat world – so interesting. Of course, the same goes for all the other characters – we wonder how Sal’s world will turn out, about the strikingly different lives of everyone they come across. They are so interesting, so intense, so human. And that’s what makes them so infinitely engaging – we can sometimes relate to them, as well as follow their adventures with both anticipation and dread.
On the Road‘s continued relevance could be debated, I guess. America is an entirely different land, now – the Beats, the beautiful landscapes, the fun painted in the book are now replaced by mass gentrification, disturbing levels of gun violence, questionable amounts of equality, the likely appointment of a nutty billionaire as a presidential candidate. The characters would no longer be able to get away with many of their antics, and their social attitudes – though progressive at the time – are now somewhat outdated. Even the scenes of drugs and sex are no longer that shocking. Yet, as with all classics, On the Road is still able to hold a major place in the 21st century world: the passionate ferocity of Sal and Dean’s friendship is massively relatable to anyone with best friends (though hopefully our relationships are a little more healthy!), and anyone who associates themselves with worlds outside the mainstream can also relate to many of the book’s major themes; we can see its influence on other alternative literature, cinema, music, fashion, on the way the world in general lives its many lives; and its message – of how we see our heroes – is still massively important to remember, especially in a world that worships the mass celebrity. In my eyes, there is little wonder as to why it is still enjoyed by millions today!
And so I found On the Road to be among the greatest books I’ve ever read – a powerful tale of friendship and counterculture; the most gorgeous frenzied flow of words shrouded in a hazy, nostalgic romanticism; such an influence on the music, the cinema, the fashion, the culture that I love. Looks like my little Penguin paperback might need a hardier replacement sometime soon…
Rating: 4.5 stars/5