Rating: 4 Stars
“I had nothing to offer anybody except my own confusion.” – Sal Paradise from ‘On the Road’
And yet Kerouac decided to go ahead anyway and write an entire novel regurgitating that state of mind.
If one has never tried recreational drugs, it’s not particularly pleasant being sucked into someone else’s psychedelic ravings. But hey, once there, why not make the most of the vicarious experience?
This work is considered the definitive work of the Beat Generation, and Jack Kerouac, its spokesman. In historical perspective, the counterculture movement that was the Beat Generation may scarcely register a blip on the radar. But no matter; this droll dubbing of each and every generation seems to be a particularly American trait, one that seeps and permeates its literature. Hence we have the ‘Lost Generation’, ‘the Beats’, ‘the Hippies’, ‘the Yuppies’; all the way up to ‘the Millennials’ - as if labeling a thing enables us to understand it any better.
In Kerouac’s estimate, the Beats were those who were tired of the superficialities of life. In a fairly obvious metaphor, the road is life. Life is to be experienced on a deeper level – “our one and noble function of the time, move.”
And move is what they do. The book traces the restless, fevered traversing of the United States by the narrator, Sal Paradise, and his friend, Dean Moriarty, between the years 1947 and 1950. Paradise is a stand-in for Kerouac and Dean Moriarty refers to his fellow Beatnik, Neal Cassady. Many of the multitudes of eccentric characters who make an appearance in this novel refer to Kerouac’s real-life acquaintances.
Paradise, who lives in New York with his aunt, meets Dean Moriarty a charismatic ex-con who initially latches onto Paradise for food and boarding; and over a period of two years the two, together, and sometimes with the company of others, crisscross the United States in a haze of motion, till Paradise finally wakes up to the sting of Moriarty’s exploitative nature.
The narrative has a staccato rhythm that effectively captures the manic pace of the Beat existence. The life Kerouac describes is one of fast cars, fast women, hot jazz and easy drugs. He does not waste too many words delving into character and motive. On the surface, there seems to be very little introspection. Yet the characters are strikingly outlined – Moriarty, erratic and incoherent even at the beginning of the novel, grows increasingly unstable towards the end; hurt, resentful women nevertheless make themselves easily available to men who have scant respect for them; men who aspire to beatific understanding mainly seem to spout meaningless drivel, all the more meaningless because more often than not, they are stoned out of their minds and all their elevated talk is in direct contrast to their treatment of others – in their careless mishandling of others’ property and feelings.
The Sal Paradise we see at the novel’s end is perhaps no less wearied of Beat existential philosophy; but he has grown disillusioned with Dean Moriarty.
To readers who may have never fallen under the spell of Moriarty, Paradise’s disenchantment may seem long overdue. There is no single path to achieving Grace. But it seems counter intuitive to believe that a life of common sense, common decency, and kindness to one another, is in any way less than the rapturous epiphanies of a febrile, drug-fueled mysticism.