Today I’d like to review a book that has changed the life of many people and become a real classic: On the Road by Jack Kerouac. I read this book in the Penguin Modern Classics collection and I must say that I really like the cover of this edition, which is a 1952 black and white picture of Jack Kerouac and his friend Neal Cassady – whom the character of Dean Moriarty is inspired by. The book also has a really nice quote from Bob Dylan on the back: “It changed my life like it changed everyone else’s.”
Did this novel change my life? Nope. Unfortunately, it didn’t make it to my life-changing list of books. Do I think it is worth reading it? Yes, definitely! This novel is, I believe, hugely autobiographical as its two main characters, Sal Paradise (who is also the narrator) and Dean Moriarty, are inspired by the author himself and his friend Neal Cassady, with whom Kerouac did several cross-country road trips in 1949 and 1950.
Therefore, the plot of this novel is quite simple: it follows the narrator’s journey over several years, mostly focusing on his long trips across the United States and, later on, to Mexico. In 1947, Sal Paradise, who is from New York City, undertakes his first trip to the West Coast. On his way to San Francisco, he makes a big stop-over in Denver, where he meets again with his friend Dean Moriarty and their group of friends. It is the beginning of a series of trips during which Sal will hit the road across the United States, most of the time along with his friend Dean. During their trips, Sal and Dean tear shit up: girls, booze, drugs, fights and jazz concerts constitute their everyday life.
This novel really really made me feel like travelling, especially in the United States of course, and just for this I would advise anyone to read it. Dean and Sal’s adventures are quite inspiring and made me dream. Moreover, some passages from this book are sheer poetry and, overall, Kerouac’s style flows in a really special way. Kerouac wrote this novel in a month, on a single continuous roll that he designed to fit in his typewriter, so that he could write non-stop without having to change paper. Because of the way it was written, this novel has a very lively and unique rhythm.
In no time at all we were back on the main highway and that night I saw the entire state of Nebraska unroll before my eyes. A hundred and ten miles an hour straight through, an arrow road, sleeping towns, no traffic, and the Union Pacific streamliner falling behind us in the moonlight. I wasn’t frightened at all that night; it was perfectly legitimate to go 110 and talk and have all the Nebraska towns – Ogallala, Gothenburg, Kearney, Grand Island, Columbus –unreel with dreamlike rapidity as we roared ahead and talked. It was a magnificent car; it could hold the road like a boat holds on water.
At dusk I walked. I felt like a speck on the surface of the sad red earth. I passed the Windsor Hotel, where Dean Moriarty had lived with his father in the depression thirties, and as of yore I looked everywhere for the sad and fabled tinsmith of my mind. Either you find someone who looks like your father in places like Montana or you look for a friend’s father where he is no more.
At lilac evening I walked with every muscle aching among the lights of 27th and Welton in the Denver colored section, wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night.
However, as I was writing, I didn’t love this novel. I believe that the reason why this book gave me a bit of a hard time is that I didn’t especially like or sympathize with any of its main characters. Even though the novel is narrated from Sal’s point of view, we do not know much about this character and his thoughts. I’ve always felt quite far from him while I was reading the novel, and this is rare for a 1st person-narrated novel. As for Dean Moriarty, he is a shadowy character, on the verge of insanity, whose personality remains really elusive throughout the novel. The only memorable feature of these two characters, apart from their compulsive need to be travelling every time, is unfortunately their misogyny. They clearly act like big pricks with women, and this is something that I didn’t like. I did enjoy reading novels where the main characters were dislikeable in the past, but this was not the case for this book. Here are a couple of little extracts which show quite well this misogyny I am talking about:
“Where will he sleep? What’s he going to eat? Are there any girls for him?’ It was like the imminent arrival of Gargantua.”
“Inez loves me; she’s told me and promised me I can do anything I want and there’ll be a minimum of trouble.”
I would not want to finish this review on this negative note, so here is a last extract which constitutes one of the numerous gems this novel contains. I hope this will make you feel like reading it. If you’ve already read it, please let me know in the comments what you thought of it, I’d be curious to know.
Have a lovely week!
All the men were driving home from work, wearing railroad hats, baseball hats, all kinds of hats, just like after work in any town anywhere. One of them gave me a ride up the hill and left me at a lonely crossroads on the edge of the prairie. It was beautiful there. The only cars that came by were farmer-cars; they gave me suspicious looks, they clanked along, the cows were coming home. Not a truck. A few cars zipped by. A hotrod kid came by with his scarf flying. The sun went all the way down and I was standing in the purple darkness.
On The Road by Jack Kerouac. Published by Penguin Books (2000)