Beseeching at the portals of the soft source

On the Road
by Jack Kerouac

On the Road

People have been telling me to read this book since I was…18? And I haven’t put it off deliberately. I even read a couple of other Kerouacs in the meantime. But I suppose the legend of this being written in one unbroken outpouring, in fact literally typed on one great long roll of paper, suggested to me something impenetrable and rambling, which this is not. Partly because that legend is not entirely true…

So much happens in this book (I hesitate to call it a novel, due to its autofiction nature) and the writing style is so open and honest it hardly matters that it’s not tightly plotted. How could it be? This is the story of a few years in the life of Kerouac’s alter ego Sal Paradise as he criss-crosses North America searching for the experience, the moment of truth that will break his writer’s block. I don’t know which parts are “real” but that really isn’t the point. The result is a beautiful, sad, enlightening book.

“Soon it got dusk, a grapy dusk, a purple dusk over tangerine groves and long melon fields; the sun the color of pressed grapes, slashed with burgundy red, the fields the color of love and Spanish mysteries. I stuck my head out the window and took deep breaths of the fragrant air. It was the most beautiful of all moments.”

The language is perfectly evocative and really shows Kerouac/Paradise’s love for his country, for the road, for people. At least to begin with. Because while the narrative starts off full of youthful excitement and wild enthusiasm, with Paradise throwing himself recklessly into every experience, the moments of awareness when a situation isn’t working out add up to produce a Paradise who is a little older and wiser, sadder and careworn, because he actually does care and recognises the value of caring.

“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 precious.”

Ah, the girls. I can see how this book might have been shocking in the 1950s. Now, of course, sex and drugs (mostly cannabis) and booze aren’t at all shocking but there is still most definitely bad behaviour in the way the thrill-seekers treat their friends/hosts wherever they go. Most of which is the influence of Dean Moriarty. Dean is a restless trouble-maker who lives life to the full and Sal hero-worships him, even though most of his friends say straight out that they don’t trust Dean, and with good reason. Dean is the start and end of the book but we don’t actually meet him until over 100 pages in.

“I could hear Dean, blissful and blabbering and frantically rocking. Only a guy who’s spent five years in jail can go to such maniacal helpless extremes; beseeching at the portals of the soft source, mad with a completely physical realization of the origins of life-bliss.”

Sal himself, though, I loved as a character. He feels everything so deeply, from the heights of passion to the depths of despair. He wants experience and he certainly gets it, travelling any way he can, sometimes working his way, sometimes living among bums penniless and scrounging or even stealing to get by. He falls in love multiple times but to some extent he just loves life.

There’s an interesting attitude to race in this book. Considering the date I can forgive some of the race language used but I can’t quite figure out how to feel about Sal’s love of coloured people. It sounds like a good thing, and he certainly mixes with them and loves their music (the jazz, of course) and their women; but he seems to see them as exotic underdogs, as if their colour defines them. When he declares a wish to be one of them it’s shockingly naïve, showing no awareness of racism, of struggle, of the fact that while he is choosing to slum it in their company knowing that he has a comfortable home near his beloved New York to return to, most poor people did not choose that life and have to struggle their whole lives, not just for a few days as a new experience.

But I can forgive all that for the sheer joy of the language. You can’t help but fall in love with travel and America when reading this book, even as Sal is falling out of love with both. I marked so many quotes while reading this. I will leave you with a few of them.

“All that old road of the past unreeling dizzily as if the cup of life had been overturned and everything gone mad. My eyes ached in nightmare day.”

“Yang, yang, the kids started to cry. Dense, mothlike eternity brooded in the crazy brown parlor with the sad wallpaper, the pink lamp, the excited faces.”

“That last day in Frisco…the great buzzing and vibrating hum of what is really America’s most excited city – and overhead the pure blue sky and the joy of the foggy sea that always rolls in at night to make everybody hungry for food and further excitement. I hated to leave…With frantic Dean I was rushing through the world without a chance to see it.”

“We turned at a dozen paces, for love is a duel, and looked at each other for the last time.”

First published 1957 by Viking Press.
Reprinted in Penguin Classics 2000.

Source: I think I bought this for myself several years ago.

Challenges: This counts towards the 2013 TBR Pile Challenge.