On the Road
by Jack Kerouac
The farther I got, the more obvious the conclusion that I read this too late in life. Had I read this as a teenager or in college I could have romanticized it like so many other people have. The dream of flight, of fleeing the perceived dreariness of one's life, is foremost the dream of the young who want to escape their parents in order to avoid becoming them. Unfortunately I'm at the phase where I and the people around me are becoming our parents--settling down, buying houses, getting married, having kids--which gives me a different perspective than if I'd read it ten or fifteen years earlier.
And in reading this book there's nothing in it that makes me want to go off on some flight of fancy. As Sal Paradise and his crazy friend Dean make their way from New York to Denver, San Francisco, Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Mexico City on four different voyages, there's nothing that to me seemed wonderfully romantic. Most of the time they're dirty, starving, and forced to beg gas money or rides from friends/relatives. Like a couple of overgrown frat boys on spring break they do drink a lot of booze, smoke a lot of "tea," and couple (to use PG language) with a lot of women. At least they had some fun, but couldn't I just stay home and pop in a "Girls Gone Wild" DVD?
By the end Dean has four ex-wives and three children (at least) and his life is in disarray, which certainly isn't much of an endorsement for his way of life. Sal Paradise is better off since he came from a slightly more stable background and thus was a little more grounded in reality. Had there been a sequel Sal probably would have been settling down with the wife, 2.3 kids, and dog in the suburbs while Dean was panhandling for bus fare. What have we learned here? All things in moderation.
What disappointed me in the end was this book didn't live up to my expectations. Where were all the wonderful characters he was supposed to meet along the road? Sure, he meets plenty of people but none of them are fully-developed, flesh-and-blood people, just cardboard cutouts in the driver's seat. Where was all the breathtaking descriptions of the diverse landscape that is America? Instead I was treated to descriptions like this: we passed through New Mexico in the night and in the morning started into Texas. Wow, color me impressed. To his credit Kerouac was the first author I've read (unlike McCarthy, Bellow, and Greene) to not make Mexico seem like the lowest circle of Hell, so he's got that going for him. (Then again, Mexico would be the ideal paradise if all you're after is cheap booze, plentiful drugs, and easy women.)
I hate to sound like the Grumpy Old Man here, but I can't help it. There was nothing in this book for me. But as I said at the beginning if you're young then it's easy to romanticize this as an entire generation did in the '50s and '60s. And if you're one of those, then rereading it is a wonderful nostalgic trip like slipping into your old leisure suit. But this Grumpy Old Man will keep moving down the road.
That is all.