Book review: Jack Kerouac – On the Road

Vacations are the best time for reading books and since I have plenty of interesting titles sitting on my shelves, I picked one up and threw it in my bag to be read during my trip. I chose On the Road, the 1950s novel by Jack Kerouac. Since a movie was released just this year on Cannes Film Festival and since I have read and heard so much about the Beat Generation without actually having read any of their stuff I decided to give it a go. Besides it is a modern classic and how apt would it be to be on the road myself while reading a book that is about traveling the USA cross country several time? Here are my thoughts.

On the Road is a largely biographical novel written by Kerouac in the early 50s. The novel entails some of the impromptu cross country trips him and his friends undertook in the 40s. It details places, roads, but above all people and their characters. The story starts with Sal Paradise, the protaganist, living with his aunt in New Jersey, living about his idol: Dean Moriarty. Dean is Sal’s friend and someone he looks up to. Sal follows him blindly and when Dean sets out to travel to Denver, Sal is determined to do the same.

This is the first of Sal’s travels. There are 5 in total. Some involving a lot of Dean Moriarty and some none at all. Each trip is epic in their minds and in a sense it’s like overcoming the last frontier. At one point Sal reaches San Fransisco and this is a decisive milestone in his travels. Going all the way west, with nothing but ocean left, San Fran signifies the end of everything, and the realization hits Sal that there are now two choices: remaining or going home. Since his friend Dean inspires him to keep on seeking to push boundaries, to go further, to go where no one has been before, Sal returns home, saves some money and does it all over again.

That is pretty much all there is to it. Sounds simple right? Well no. There is definitely more to this book. Set and published in a time when everything in American was about to change, this novel clearly depicts the dissatisfaction of American youth with the culture their parents had created. Freedom and the sense of being free are returning concepts. At the same time, the novel is also about self-exploration. Sal’s admiration of Dean Moriarty seems a bit odd at first, but it is through this person that Sal feels he really finds out who he is, what he wants and what he can do.

American contemporary culture plays a big part in the book. Segregation was very much alive in the USA at the time and this issue is critiqued in the novel several times.  Music is an important theme as well, with Sal and Dean going to listen to ‘bop’ (jazz music) to hear men ‘blow’ (play trumpets/ saxophones etc). Sex is one too, with Dean’s first wife Marylou as a sort of embodiment of sexual freedom and independence. It is about coming of age in a time when coming of age was deemed inappropriate. A parallel with Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye is easily made, be it that Sal Paradise isn’t as liable as Holden Caulfield (that would be Dean).

On the Road is a good read. It’s not always easy to get through. The descriptions of winding landscapes and depictions of people’s characteristics can get a bit tedious. Because the book consists of 5 parts you do have a feeling that you’re starting over time and time again. It’s almost as if the book is playing a trick on you. Nonetheless, this book is interesting. If you know anything about 1940s/ 1950s American culture than this becomes even more interesting. But even if you don’t and you enjoy getting to know characters and literally going on a journey, through the US and life, you’re in for a treat.

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