They danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I've been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes "Awww!"I know, it's so overused but for me, the above quote epitomizes On the Road; in a sense, it's the entire book. And it comes in Part 1 Section 1, so it's a great barometer. If you like it, boy are you in for a ride. (Why not get a tattoo?) Otherwise... "Oh boy... here we go..." That's what I said when I started this book; now, on the other side, my opinion still hasn't changed.
To read this book, one has to suffer through countless run-on sentences like the one above -- sentences that I'm sure many grade school English teachers would just love to mark up with red pen... And then there's the, uh, majesty of it all, a word I simply cannot apply to this book without a wink and a smile. Please, see William Shatner's dramatic reading of "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds" for similar laugh-inducing "wonder"... And then the reader will have to slog through the self importance, the dead seriousness that sits underneath the light-hearted frolicking of this book, a strong glimpse at the literary pretensions of its author... Most of all, get ready for absolutely no plot -- just driving, drinking and fucking.
Please, meet Jack Kerouac. Jack is a part of a little group, a nice gang of fellas who have a major hard-on for life. They like to "get their kicks," they're "mad," "wild" -- "beat," even. This group likes to gallivant about the US, subsisting primarily on alcohol and male-on-male romance -- despite repeated insisting to the contrary. "Sal" (Jack's in-book pseudonym, to my estimation an inexplicable, entirely useless addition)is always trying to get in with women, women who are principally described by the color of their hair. And he's always eating pie... real pie, the kind that apparently represents "the idealized comforts of a certain middle-class American domesticity." But to me, it's all a conspiracy: the women and the pie are there, sure, but they're squished in beside endless drinking, and endless all-night, all-male talking sessions.
Jack and his friends bounce around, off the walls and off the coasts of the country. They're all antsy motherfuckers; they can't sit still, as if some part of them, *ahem*, "burns, burns, burns." So they move -- by hitchhiking, bus, or private car -- from city to city, often spending just a few days in a city they traveled thousands of miles to get to. On the Road is apparently famed for its descriptions of certain towns and cities -- Lord knows why, since they are usually so brief and incomplete. Jack is the kind of guy who could form a bad opinion of a place just because it happened to be cold and rainy during the two days he visited. And the people... well, just about everyone who is not within Jack's little circle gets ignored.
Most everyone in the group is a delinquent of some kind or another. They steal, con girls into bed, abandon wives and children, and often descend on a family situation like a swarm of locusts. They can clean out a cupboard and a hot water tank in nothing flat, with hardly a thank you. And what gets me the most: they get away with every bit of it.
Yes, everyone in Jack's group is a pain in the ass, but my real wrath is pointed directly at "Dean Moriarty." I can't believe I've gone this long without mentioning him. In some ways, Dean is the book -- Jack spends all his time following Dean around, Dean begins the book and Dean ends the book. Perhaps he's God, in Jack's imagination (an obvious idol in mine); perhaps he's just an "Angel of Death." Or! perhaps he's just a man, a "mad" man with a ton of other issues besides.
I did not like this book; therefore, I did not like Dean. Everything I've said to describe the group as a whole works just fine on Dean. I can add a few, as well... he's so very wise, yet he never makes much sense; he alienates all those around him, who generally only want to be close to him; he messes recklessly with other people's lives, his "Taoist philosophy" not withstanding; and, most of all he can't sit still. Dean is the kind of guy who talks incessantly throughout a TV show -- he's so antsy and self-important, and it's almost like he can't help it. Maybe that's it: he simply can't sit down and shut up. He can't help being an asshole... in the end, he may be fun to follow around for awhile, but he's not a lifelong friend. He's not anything. Listening to his odd ravings will not make you smarter, he has nothing to offer.
Now for a bit of apologizing... I feel almost bashful about hating this book, a little scared. In a way I feel like the Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier when he was so disgusted by a book of Whitman's poetry that he tossed it into the fire, a low point in his career and my estimation of him. Perhaps Whittier was too set in his ways, I think, to feel the magic and rhythm of a new kind of poetry. Perhaps I am too square to find a comfortable place among the Beats. I don't, can't, and won't get IT... Sometimes I ask myself, "Am I missing something?"
Only sometimes, mind you. The rest of the time... well, you already know. You know where I'm coming from at least. This book seemingly urges the reader to "burn, burn, burn" -- but, please, don't forget to spend five to ten hours reading it. Don't live vicariously through others, unless that "other" happens to be Jack Kerouac and his friends. Thankfully, this kind of self-indulgent literature will never have much of an audience because everybody wants to tell their story, nobody wants to listen. Regretfully, this book will always be known as the book that "turned on a generation...."
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