Most of my friends who have read On the Road say they were bored by it, qualifying that thought by saying they read it a while back. And it's easy toMost of my friends who have read On the Road say they were bored by it, qualifying that thought by saying they read it a while back. And it's easy to see why they felt that way: this is a rather monotonous book about a guy who takes a few road trips with his friends. I think it's about more than that, but if you're not of a certain sensibility then you're not going to feel the excitement and the sadness that you can tell, from his prose, that Kerouac feels. This is in part because these feelings never have the most concrete foundation: It's not really exciting that Sal eats pie and ice cream several times while heading west because there's something particularly exciting about eating pie and ice cream; it's exciting because, at least to Kerouac, damn near everything is exciting. If it's not, then it's probably sad. But it's the worldview, the love for life, that makes all these things exciting, or sad, and if that's not a worldview that infects you, then this really won't be much more than some guy's interminable travel log.
An aside: The "Nothing happened; they just did this and this over and over" reviews are some of my least favorite. They seem to want to suggest that there's nothing to a story but the plot. Recently my friend told me how he had to read A Hero of Our Time in high school and he hated it: it was just a story about a bunch of Russian guys who wandered around, talking about how cold they were. That sounds just great to me.
Let's pursue this exciting/sad dichotomy a bit further. Kerouac certainly feels that the United States is his home (his life, even), but it seems that having a home within the US, say, in New York, is different, and sad. It is only when one ditches the standard definition of house, the definition that includes walls, and allows the entirety of America (incorrectly using America here because it seems more emblematic of this kind of thing somehow) to be one's home, with all the frantic travel that necessitates, does one escape that sadness and achieve the true excitement that has been lying latent in life. And it's quite an excitement: strong feelings of unity, awe at the land, love for your fellow people. It infects me. I'm sure it won't infect everyone though; the farmhand who's content to live in rural Montana might be able to understand the idea, but it won't resonate.
Informing this excitement is a strong spiritual undercurrent that I also enjoy. One of my favorite passages in the book involves Sal suddenly imagining that some lady in a shop is his grandmother from his past life in 18th century Britain and then walking outside and not knowing where he is, because there are waterfronts like the one he's staring at all over the US. This is the kind of thing that'll make many roll their eyes, and I think that's a reasonable reaction, but I find that it really brings a new dimension and some color, some exotic qualities I suppose, to the excitement. Kerouac's big on eastern religion, of course. But when Sal and Dean finally journey outside of the US and into Mexico, it's primarily western religion that colors the mood. Sal openly refers to the place as heaven multiple times, reinforcing the idea that America is life--but to travel, to go outside America and see all these new things, that's not a different life, but something beyond it, a trip to the other with all requisite feelings of ecstasy. When Sal got fever I awaited the hell imagery and the feeling, implicit or stated, that however rapturous Mexico was one just has to return to the good 'ol US, to life, sometime, but it never came. Maybe a missed opportunity, maybe it's for the better.
If this spiritual stuff does grate against you, it might be nice to know that there's also an undercurrent, maybe somewhat weaker, of uncertainty at all this excitement and spirituality. There are some specific passages that gave me this feeling that I would have made note of if I knew at the time I was reading them that I would be writing this, but things like the constant search for Dean's father, Dean's broken thumb, Ed Dunkel's ghost, and so on, are reminders that one can't live in complete reckless abandon. There are always pieces of the past to slow you from roaring onward, always physical limitations to remind you you're only human, your friend's insane ravings to remind you that others have issues that can't be fixed by jumping in a car and shouting "Go!"
Some people think of On the Road as being a period piece, and it may be accurate to say it defined the era, but I think a lot of these feelings are still relevant. If there's anything dating the book it's its attitude toward women and non-white people, primarily blacks. It's hard to let the feeling of excitement infect you when you're worrying about how sexist the main character is being, and it's hard to not find Sal's plaintive longing to be black in a certain section ridiculous and insensitive. These are definite obstacles, and if they ruin the book for someone I understand, but I found myself able to clumsily clear them and forget about them, letting the excitement infect me, until the next one came up. Whether that approach is good for allowing the reader to appreciate the merits of the work despite some offensive material or bad for being an overt attempt at ignorance is up for debate.
On the Road is hardly a book free of flaws. Aside from the insensitivity, the monotony, the alienating spiritual stuff, it's just plain dull at times. But this is a book that is about, not so much two guys going on road trips, but the ecstatic wonder that arises from traveling across the United States and the conflict between wanting to pursue that lifestyle to its fullest and the dim awareness that being constantly in motion leaves a distinct sense of lacking in a person. And I think that's interesting. It made me question some of my romantic notions, and it made me jump around my room with joy knowing that I'll be going on a road trip of my own next summer....more