Kristopher Jansma's Reviews > On the Road

On the Road by Jack Kerouac
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Mar 30, 2008

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Read in January, 2008

A long long time ago, the summer before I left for college, my sister and I took a train into New York City and while she took a dance class at Steps, I spent a few hours wandering around a Barnes & Noble, some birthday money burning a hole in my pocket, gathering up books I thought I ought to read that summer, to better fit in with all the intellectuals I was bound to meet at college in September. You see, I have been having these ambitious good intentions regarding reading books for years now. Anyway, I walked away with a stack of what I deemed to be the necessary texts for a young writer in training: Catch-22, Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man, Love in the Time of Cholera, Nine Stories, and On the Road. I read Catch-22 straight away and burned out halfway through the Marquez (and I have still not finished it... I sadly have never been able to get into Mr. Gabriel Garcia.) I picked through the Nine Stories the following summer, but Portrait took me 3 years and a trip to England. But On the Road took until this past week to complete. I remember opening it once before, balking at the first four or five pages and immediately chucking it back again. But this past week, I re-read those same pages and burned with excitement to read more.

On thing that finally pushed me past the reticence point was something I read in the introduction to Dharma Bums, which I picked up recently in a splurge (I cannot seem to pass up these new Penguin Classics Deluxe Editions, with the Comic Covers!) From reading that introduction two things became clear. First, I was going to have to read On the Road first, because it constantly held the two books in comparison. Second, while Kerouac did write in lengthy, drug-induced hazes - he apparently spent a long time perfecting the art of writing in a more spontaneous way. The intro described how he would sit for hours and practice writing "sketches," essentially little sudden fictions, about whatever happened to be going on around him or in his memory or imagination. This idea really appealed to me at that moment, because I was just trying to get into a experiment where I wrote a new story every week, based on whatever was going on the week before. (I made it 3 weeks, which is something, and turned out one short story I was actually very proud of, and the beginning of what will have to be something much longer, which is what threw me off...)

Anyway, getting back to the book itself - I was incredibly sucked in this time around. Initially I suffered under the false impression that the book was about one cross-country voyage, wherein it is about a period of many wanderings over the course of many years. I found myself watching with joy as he got sucked into the world of "the road." The hitchhiking life is so new that it seems (perhaps due to his editing and compositing of events) that there are only a few hundred people running around the country doing this at the time, and they all seem to know one another, or know of one another. What comes out is a whole culture full of little stories and vignettes - who fought who in a bar outside of St. Louis and why... how so-and-so got his nickname... etc. (I'd give more specific examples, but I don't have the book with me at the moment.) And, true to life, the excitement never lasts very long, is always quickly followed by awkwardness and squabbling and the sense that something greater is happening somewhere else and it's time to move on and find the next big thing. It really did make me nostalgic for a whole lifestyle that I never knew existed before and that does not, at least in terms of real hitchhiking, exist anymore. I knew a hundred writers, or would-be-writers, in college who held Kerouac and Neal Cassady up as legends and wanted to live (or write) in the same free-wheeling style - I remember one story about a girl who meets (the ghost of?) Jack Kerouac in a coffee shop in the midwest somewhere... though I am guilty of once writing a short story about having a similar encounter with JD Salinger... or actually with a girl that inspired his story For Esme With Love and Squalor, but anyway - and the more pale imitations I encountered, the more I think I held it against the original. Especially when his originality was the absolute centerpiece of his appeal.

Writing about the fantastically quirky souls of real people is not easy - it takes someone with real talent to capture whatever it is that makes them original without turning them into a walking cliche. I know I've tried to do it, with varying success, and it's one of the things that makes writing interesting to me. My fiance took a class where a Professor spoke of a writer as being 'the Sacred Bard' - someone with the gift of observation and of translating those observations onto a page, in such a way that a reader feels they have observed it themselves. Kerouac fills this position well in On The Road - recognizing often that he is hero-worshiping Moriarty/Cassady and that he, himself can't hold a candle to the uniqueness of his companion. The most exciting thread in the book, by far, is the tragic unraveling of Moriarty - the slow fizzling out of this anti-hero and you feel the same pains that Kerouac feels in observing it all.
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Laura I'm reading OTR for the first time and I agree I think once you stop looking for the meaning and realise that the writing is the meaning, you're ok. Kerouac was searching for life's meaning when he wrote it, and, bear in mind, he wrote it as a journal to himself not for worldwide consumption. The grammatical and perspective peculiarites are key to the privacy of the tome. Joyce's "Portrait..." is a similar thing. I first read it at 16 and I hated it, I found it cringeworthy and self obsessive. However, some distance and experience ( ahem! 24 years) made the third reading a much more enjoyable and tolerant one. In fact I admit it I liked it. If you're reading this, Michael Backhouse, you were right all that time ago, and I was wrong!

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