On the Road is a novel about the search for IT currently being led by the Beat Generation, to put the situation in Kerouac's own unequivocal bop-talk. Anyone who's ever listed to Symphony Sid will dig that immediately. For the uninitiated, "down-and-outers" may be offered as a synonym for "Beat Generation," albeit a weak one. Loosely defined, the term can be applied to almost anybody from 15 to 40 who thinks that things are in a hell of a mess so you might as well have a good time. IT is probably best described as an "ECTSTATICALLY Good Time," though the feeling is as hard to pin down as any mystical experience.
The Beat Generation is not without cultural ancestors. In the beginning there was Edna St. Vincent Millay, burning her candle at both ends. And then there was Hemingway and the Lost Generation squirting wine sacks at each other. But beside Kerouac's band, they are all pickers. They were never "beatifically beat," as are On the Road's "... 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..." In an age of specialization, these are the bohemian specialists in dissipation.
Sal Paradise, an ex-GI college student, writer, and all-American Beat Generator, is the narrator of Kerouac's tale. On the Road begins, naturally enough, with Sal on Route 6 outside New York, hitch-hiking to Denver.
Eventually, he runs into an old buddy and fellow member of the Beat Generation who is a reform school alumnus. They have a Wild Time racing around to parties and bars and out to the West Coast. Cutting back and forth across the country for 308 pages, they meet at least a couple of hundred other real gone characters. Sometimes the boys work a little, or sleep with some cute chick, or steal cars, or get married, or hitch-hike, or get divorced; almost nightly they get drunk and/or take dope. Dean sets the pace, stealing five cars one night and sleeping with three girls another; understandably nobody can keep up, though most try hard enough.
In the most frantic moments, someone decides that this is IT and is amened all around. That may happen in any kind of scene, though it's usually when Dean is whipping a car along through the night at 110 miles an hour or when there's a really good man playing the saxophone in a night club combo.
Off to Sleep
In quieter moments, Sal and Dean think that no one will ever really have IT except when he dies or, as not a few people have said elsewhere, returns to the womb. But whenever there are any quiet moments that show promise of lasting, worn-out Sal either goes to sleep or back to school, depending on whether the book has come to the end of a chapter or one of its five sections. As a result, there is little thinking about such ideas or about anything else. Nor are there any lasting reactions to scenes of potential beauty, be they dusk in the California grape-growing country or dawn in the streets of San Francisco.
Kerouac has taken the slightly less than original idea that life is like a road and given it an indisputably original twist by using a U. S. road map for most of the plot, and a Mexican map for the rest of it. Everything happens while the characters are physically on the move and nothing every happens when they stop. Outside of pure motion, there is no development of anything. Whenever some danger of a little drama through which personal relationships or just plain personalities might be explored develops, Kerouac drops the situation.
Drive, Man, Drive
With no one standing still long enough for the reader to get a look at him, the book becomes a series of faces and scenery flashing by along the road. As a tour through modern America's bohemia, the book is amusing and entertaining. There are plenty of weird characters to titillate you a la Auntie Mame. But like any sight-seeing excursion, it is also very tiring. Even Kerouac seems to tire of spending a paragraph or two on people who sit around shooting benzedrine tubes at each other with an air gun. Toward the end of the book he contents himself with describing one party by listing names: "'Dean?' I yelled across the party--which included Angel Luz Garcia, the poet; Walter Evans; Victor Villanueva, the Veneauelan poet; Jinny Jones, a former love of mine;...(etc.)... and innumerable others--'Come over here, man.'" The lack of concreteness keeps the book sexless, despite the incredible amount of sleeping around. Kerouac has a long way to go if he really wants to imitate Henry Miller.
"Wild, Man, Wild"
The journalistic approach will doubtless make the book valuable as source material for sociologists some twenty or thirty years hence, but it precludes any appreciable literary achievements. Such a technique fits descriptions of American cities and landscapes much better, and it is here that Kerouac occasionally is not bad reading. But Thomas Wolfe did all that much better, for he at least knew when to let a scene carry him along by its own weight and happily didn't feel obliged to punctuate the description with "Ah's" and "Oh's" or "Wild man; Wild."
Kerouac's use of pure Americana makes his language an effective vehicle at times. But it becomes merely amusing when he borrows from advertisements (A piece of apple pie is "nutritious, and ... delicious"), and elsewhere downright sickeningly romantic. ("Holy flowers floating in the dawn of Jazz America.") And when he tries to describe jazz, he reaches the heights of the ridiculous. ("ta-tup-EE-da-de-deraRup ...") It's difficult to see why, in the day of LP's, he thinks it necessary to compete with Charlie Parker on paper.
The whole "novel" should have been released slowly through quarterlies. In small doses, the stuff might still be good for a few kicks when you've run out of juice. Too much is too much, man, no matter what brand you're drinking. There's a difference between having IT and being sick.
Or is there