Column(Re)read a book. Sustain your mind.
I first read On the Road when I was 20. It was, as they say, the right time. I had just returned from yet another leave of absence (“leaves of presence,” I would later call them) from my East Coast university. That year, I had managed to cover ground cross-country to San Francisco, north to the Arctic working tugs, back to the lower 48, overseas to Europe, and finally to Africa, where I headed up the Nile as far as my body could stand it. Now here I was, happily weathered and back in Boston, way wined up and sitting across a barroom table from my favorite (and at the moment incredulous) professor: “Are you f***ing kidding me?” he slurred. “You never read Jack?!” “Yeah, yeah, I get it,” I moaned. “Kerouac. The Beat God. [Jazz hands.] Alright, alright.” The next day I bought a used paperback. It had a picture of a blazing sun on the cover.
The book sang to me. Being on the backside of many journeys, it was more of an uncanny companion (had Jack been with me?) than an inspiration. But there it was, a perfect, almost musically rendered travelogue of bar stories and holy road tales – the kind I had been gathering and was just beginning to learn how to tell. It was what the road sounded like. It was how it felt.
The novel, largely based on Kerouac’s real-life experiences, is the first-person reminiscence of the 20-something Sal Paradise (Jack). It takes place over the waning years of the 1940s, during which time Sal meets and then “absorbs” his pal Dean Moriarty (based on Jack’s real-life companion Neal Cassady). Dean is an iconic symbol of the fading American frontier. Raised in the rail yards of the West by a now-lost alcoholic hobo father, he’s wired to explore with abandon a world whose post-war boundaries are closing in (“a bomb had come that could crack all our bridges and roads and reduce them to jumbles”), making him a maniac by society’s standards and a winged, yet sad, Beat hero, saint and angel by Sal’s. Together and apart, they crisscross the highways of America (mostly blue at the time), intersecting on and off with their sometimes like-minded crew of contemporaries (almost all based on Kerouac’s circle of friends, including soon-to-be notables such as Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs).
The story is of adventure nonpareil. It’s a bop-and jazz-infused, abstract Huck Finn meets Moby Dick on wheels—a purely American tale complete with an intrepid search for a lost father, fearless in its exploration of time (everything is epic; a few hours passing through a meaningless town is worthy of its own mythologizing) and space (no heretofore secret place is off-limits, from the darkest bar at dawn to the dankest Mexican brothel). And the characters know it’s all pure life and they embrace it every inch of the way. Sal’s oft-quoted whoop:
The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’
Like I said, I was 20 and the time was right. As it had been for untold millions of young Americans, On the Road was perfect fodder for me as I set out to explore life unknown. I saw it as an anthem, really, for brave, invincible and outward-bound youth. And now I wanted to be a writer.
I decided that I would spend my last year as an undergraduate buttoning down a lit degree and writing a thesis on Jack’s book (and his more experimental Visions of Cody). As part of my “research,” I found myself a dropout once more and headed back to San Francisco, in part to explore the Great Man’s haunts and dives. Reading my own shoddy poems, drinking to excess and listening to anyone who would tell me a Jack story, it quickly became apparent that the now-dead writer was buried under a mountain of hangers-on and cultural noise. The hype was as immeasurable in the 1980s as it was when the book was first published in 1957. Worse, in fact. And from what I could gather, Kerouac never did get used to his own celebrity, and his work and life suffered greatly.
Though some intermittently great achievements did come—The Dharma Bums, The Subterraneans, a few others – he never achieved the success or creative reach of these two books (On the Road and Cody, respectively). Jack eventually drank himself back full circle, seemingly unlearning the world, surrendering whatever claims to enlightenment he may have achieved, and dying a pitiful alcoholic’s death in 1969. His final days were clouded by all-too-public rants of bigotry and self-obsession.
So I focused my work on the words, setting out to examine the purely literary aspects of the novels. I brattily teased out the influence of Proust, Joyce and Céline. I fought with a professor who refused to read my thesis (while Kerouac’s female characters can be thin and leave something to be desired on every front, I never bought the misogyny charges). I avoided the bloated and self-aggrandizing I-knew-the-Beats biographies. I protected Jack’s words at every turn. I needed his books to be legitimate. I thought the world did too.
And when I was done I put On the Road away. While I did keep traveling for a number of years (I was a real pro for a while), eventually I got married, returned to my hometown of Detroit and had kids, got a dog and gave up the road. The book (now a first edition purchased to celebrate the completion of my thesis) was consigned to a shelf. Jack was in my past. I did become a writer, though. A journalist. But I never wrote a novel about my travels. One day, I always thought.
My kids are both off to college now, having their own great adventures. My oldest has read On the Road. My youngest (whom I named Cody, incidentally) says he’ll get around to it one day. Meanwhile, I’m wondering what my 50s are going to look like, sitting back to catch my post-parenting breath (like it ever really ends) and thinking of what it would be like to be on the road again. I do live in the San Francisco area, though I seldom go to Jack’s beloved North Beach bars. In fact, I don’t go to bars much at all.
Last weekend, I reread the book. Again I heard music, although it sounded a little bit different than it did a quarter-century ago. I’m a hell of a better reader now than I was then, and I know my jazz (I get the references to Miles and Bird and Billie). I also know what happened to poor Jack, who passed at 47, a year younger than I am today. (I may not be a famous novelist, but I’m alive. I no longer drink.) And interestingly, maybe sadly, this time I couldn’t read the words without hearing Jack’s actual voice. (I’ve heard endless tape recordings of his readings since I first read him.) It’s that signature Lowell, Mass. slur, with its boozy Beat rhythms and accentuations. Unmistakable.
But here’s the rub: This time around, I saw the road from a very different angle. Without the roar of youth, the sentences popped. It’s as if I first read the book while singing along at a rock show and today, well, it’s clearer now – clearer, even, than when I struggled so hard to give Jack his academic due. It speaks of becoming the weather (“The atmosphere and I became the same”) and the whoops scream “we are here now” – be here now. A portend, perhaps, of the Buddhist philosophies that would entrance and perhaps save some of that generation, including its most noted survivors, Ginsberg and the great poet Gary Snyder (Japhy Ryder in The Dharma Bums.)
I missed this quote the first time around. It’s Dean talking to Sal about a couple of “squares” they traveled with for a short spell, who were in the front seat:
Now you just dig them in front. They have worries, they’re counting the miles, they’re thinking about where to sleep tonight, how much money for gas, the weather, how they’ll get there – and all the time they’ll get there anyway, you see. But they need to worry and betray time with urgencies false and otherwise, purely anxious and whiny, their souls really won’t be at peace unless they can latch on to an established and proven worry and having once found it they assume facial expressions to fit and go with it, which is, you see, unhappiness, and all the time it all flies by them and they know it and that too worries them no end. Listen! Listen!
Today, I realize something new about Jack’s road. Or maybe I just have to see it differently. Now the book is no longer about being brave and hip and Beat – and it’s not about getting somewhere. It’s about being present. It’s about “it,” as Sal and Dean discover together. And though I may have thought I got “it” back then, I didn’t.
Revisiting On the Road, I see something that I couldn’t know as a young man – and certainly not as the young man who judged and tormented his older self for so long for choosing a road less dangerous than the one he traveled in his younger days. I see that the road never ends and I know this is good news for an older person who, unlike Jack, survived his own life to live and work and read another day. My road today no longer calls for the wild whoop! of a daredevil, but rather for the measured and accepting smile of an adult allowing himself to experience new things as each day unfurls. Know this about Jack’s book: Whether you’ve read it before or wisely decide to read it for the first time, it’s not just for the young. It’s a tome for seekers – no matter your age.
And now, I still think of On the Road. And I still think of Dean Moriarty. Maybe I’ll write that book.
Editor’s note: News & Culture contributor Scott Adelson’s biweekly feature, InPRINT, reviews and discusses books new and old, as well as examines issues in publishing.
ALSO CHECK OUT:
Top Image: Caveman Chuck Coker