Someday I am going to die, and when I do, at least 30 percent of what I’ll see flashing before my eyes will be taken from road trips I went on between the ages of 21 and 26. I know this is true, even if it seems faintly ridiculous, considering all the things I should be thinking about as I draw my final breaths. It’s not as if these trips were particularly important in shaping my life. I don’t think I’m a different person because I once stayed up for 32 hours straight while driving from Eau Claire, Wisconsin to Memphis, then up through northern Arkansas to Branson, Missouri. (My buddy Joe and I mistakenly thought Branson was the Las Vegas of the Midwest. This is only the third dumbest assumption I’ve ever made in my life.)
A young man piling into a car with other young men and hitting the open road with only a vague destination in mind—which, in my case, meant places like Graceland or “that crappy sports bar in Indianapolis where Guided By Voices is playing on Saturday night”—is not necessarily an act of spiritual exploration rife with heavy significance. I definitely don’t think I learned anything about myself from doing this, nor did I gain any insight into the meaning of existence.
And yet these road trips—even the shitty ones, or maybe especially the shitty ones—are some of the most cherished times of my life, in part because they allowed me to step outside of my life for a while. I was far from home and seeing places I’d never visited or even imagined visiting, with no plan for where I’d be eating my next meal or sleeping that night. I was still “me,” but I had become a tourist in my own life. The automatic-pilot routine of regular everyday experience had been shut off, and I was left to wander aimlessly on the fringes.
So I guess you could say I had absorbed the essence of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road years before I finally got around to reading it. On my trips, as Kerouac describes, “I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, like a ghost.” You could even say I was “at the dividing line between the East of my youth and the West of my future,” though I’d rather you didn’t, because, really, you’re starting to embarrass yourself.
Kerouac’s iconic Beat Generation novel has so infiltrated our national consciousness that reading it almost seems unnecessary. Few people who aren’t American history scholars or hermetic anti-government nutjobs have read the Declaration Of Independence from preamble to John Hancock, and yet we all know about (and demand) our right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Similarly, you don’t have to read Sal Paradise’s worshipful descriptions of Dean Moriarty’s considerable bad-assitude and unrepentant assholery to understand that the rootless, rambling lifestyle that On The Road personifies is exciting and inherently American. Thomas Jefferson and Kerouac made vitally important contributions to our collective concept of the American Dream; it’s not so much a matter of reading their works as effortlessly pulling them out of the atmosphere and breathing them in.
Still, considering how much trouble we as a society have gotten into because too many people think they know the Bible without actually reading it, I figured it might be a good idea to sit down and immerse myself in the nitty-gritty of the Bible Of Beat. Surely I was depriving myself by not reading about Kerouac’s cross-country sojourns to Denver, San Francisco, Mexico, and numerous points between with the likes of Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, and Neal Cassady—the basis for Dean, and Kerouac’s larger-than-life muse—in the late ’40s.
I’m glad I did read On The Road, if only because it confirmed that what the book signifies is far more important than the book itself, which I found surprisingly dull and inert for a core building block of the counterculture. Kerouac’s self-styled form of “spontaneous prose”—which was rapidly pecked out on a massive scroll of taped-together sheets of paper measuring 12 stories long—is intentionally misshapen and manic, hurriedly describing a rush of events in a way that’s intended to be exhilarating. It clearly was for many readers at the time (and beyond), but for me, it didn’t offer anything particularly interesting or insightful. Take this passage, where Kerouac (as his stand-in Sal) recounts a (probably drug-fueled) conversation between “child of the rainbow” Dean and Carlo Marx, the nom de plume Kerouac gave his friend Ginsberg:
Then they got down to business. They sat on the bed cross-legged and looked straight at each other. I slouched in a nearby chair and saw all of it. They began with an abstract thought, discussed it; reminded each other of an abstract point forgotten in the rush of events; Dean apologized but promised he could get back to it and manage it fine, bringing up illustrations.
Carlo said, “And just as we were crossing Wazee I wanted to tell you about how I felt of your frenzy with the midgets and it was just then, remember, you pointed out that old bum with the baggy pants and said he looked just like your father?”
“Yes, yes, of course I remember; and not only that, but it started a train of my own, something real wild I had to tell you, I’d forgotten it, now you just reminded me of it…” and two new points were born. They hashed these over. Then Carlo asked Dean if he was honest and specifically if he was being honest with him in the bottom of his soul.
“Why do you bring that up again?”
“There’s one thing I want to know—“
I’m going to stop here, even if it is an awkward break, because I think you probably get the point. (Plus, this passage goes on for-fucking-ever.) Much of On The Road consists of loopy conversations that probably seemed profound before they were transcribed on paper and dried out, without all the chemicals; on the page, they made me regret not downing a handful of bennies and chasing it with a bottle of rotgut wine before picking the book up. The rest of On The Road details encounters with hitchhikers, cowboys, hobos, poets, and other free-spirited ne’er-do-wells who never seem as captivating or significant as Kerouac’s easily excitable Sal thinks they are. Whether it’s matter of nothing much happening, or Kerouac’s convoluted, inconsistent prose failing to bring the events to life, reading On The Road was like being stuck in a car with a blowhard with a vast repertoire of rambling anecdotes without punchlines. I appreciated the storyteller’s enthusiasm, and desperately longed for an ejector seat.
Maybe I’m just too old. Surely I would have liked On The Road more had I read it when I was 16 instead of 32. Instead of relating to Sal, I ended up siding with the fuddy-duddies at The Saturday Review, which dismissed On The Road as a “dizzy travelogue” when it came out in 1957.
Even if I am out of touch with the kids and that kooky jazz racket they listen to, I’d like to think even my 16-year-old self would have cringed when Sal wishes “I were a Negro” as he wanders through a black neighborhood in segregated, pre-civil-rights-era Denver. When Kerouac gushes that “the best that the white world offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough life,” its feels like his heart is in the right place, but his naïveté about the crushing subjugation of his honorary African-American brothers makes his wide-eyed idealization silly at best, and patronizing at worst.
The most problematic part of On The Road for me is the portrayal of Dean, the book’s hero. Dean represents everything men want to be as they enter adulthood—he’s strong-willed, self-assured, impervious to the downsides of excessive drug and alcohol consumption, and always out to have a good time. Oh, and he also has an “enormous dangle,” as Sal dreamily reports. In real life, Cassady was no less mesmerizing; he was a Zelig figure and drifter who palled around with Kerouac and Ginsberg in the early days of the Beat movement, then ingratiated himself with Ken Kesey and the Grateful Dead in the ’60s, driving the “Furthur” bus across the United States as the Merry Pranksters played Johnny Appleseed with LSD. Seemingly everybody who ever met Cassady worshipped the ground he walked on, imbuing him with mystical powers that are not of this Earth. “He seemed to live in another dimension,” Grateful Dead guitarist Bob Weir once said of Cassady, “and in that dimension time as we know it was transparent.”
Apparently living in a different dimension can turn you into sort of a prick. At least that’s how Dean came off to me as I was reading On The Road. In spite of Sal’s protestations to the contrary, Dean seems less like an all-powerful oracle for the coming age than a selfish, self-absorbed misogynist who equated getting his joint worked with spiritual fulfillment. For Dean, nirvana is a brothel in Mexico stocked with underaged whores. When he’s finally called out for abandoning one of his many wives, Sal gives him an appropriately childish defense:
I longed to put my arm around Dean and say, Now look here, all of you, remember just one thing: this guy has his troubles too, and another thing, he never complains and he’s given all of you a damned good time just being himself, and if that isn’t enough for you then send him to the firing squad, that’s apparently what you’re itching to do anyway…
There was a time in my life when I have gladly let a guy like Dean sleep on my couch; now, I’d just shut off the light and pretend I wasn’t home. But even if On The Road as a book is rife with hokey, misguided romanticism, as an idea it remains potent, timeless, and quantifiably great. Amid the passages that made my eyes roll were lines that have appeared in Tom Waits and Hold Steady songs, reminding me that Kerouac’s restless spirit inspired legions of artists to follow their own idiosyncratic paths. On The Road is clearly much bigger than my relatively insignificant feelings about it; it might even be bigger than Neal Cassady’s dangle, which is praise Kerouac himself surely would have appreciated.