Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

Better late than never: On the Road

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I’m not sure how I managed to avoid On the Road for more than thirty years. Part of it, I suppose, was the sense that I was already too old for it. The music critic Dorian Lynskey includes it along with Tropic of Cancer and The Magus on a list of books you should read before you’re eighteen or not at all, and he’s probably right. As a result, my knowledge of Kerouac never went beyond 10,000 Maniacs and “That’s not writing, that’s typing.” Yet I knew I had to confront this book one day. Its central question, as its admirers love to remind us, is how to live, and when you’ve decided to write for a living, this isn’t just an abstract philosophical question, but a matter of urgent survival. On a practical level, I’m interested in any serious attempt to lay out the rules of the game. And when I picked up On the Road at last, I was genuinely curious to see what Kerouac had to teach me.

And what I discovered, unfortunately, is that I’m no longer convinced by the vision of life that On the Road represents. It begins promisingly, with Sal’s epic journey from New York to San Francisco, but founders on the figure of Dean Moriarty, presented to us initially as a reckless romantic, but who is really a monster of selfishness and, ultimately, a bore. The central figures are feckless car thieves, pickpockets, and shoplifters who leave a string of broken relationships—and abandoned children—in their headlong rush across the country. There’s a lot of talk about freedom and the embrace of the unknown, but never a moment in which anyone takes the ultimate risk of real human connection that demands any kind of personal sacrifice. The strongest emotion is Sal’s momentary infatuation with a beautiful prostitute at a Mexican brothel, but before long, we’re on the road again, leaving her to live a life that we suspect is far more interesting that those of the men we’ve been following.

And yet On the Road contains moments that shine with beauty, insight, and truth. There’s a scene in which Sal and Dean end up in an all-night movie theater in Detroit and end up repeatedly watching Background to Danger with George Raft, Sydney Greenstreet, and Peter Lorre, until the movie takes up permanent residence in Sal’s brain:

We saw them waking, we heard them sleeping, we sensed them dreaming, we were permeated completely with the strange Great Myth of the West and the weird dark Myth of the East when morning came. All my actions since then have been dictated automatically to my subconscious by this horrible osmotic experience.

Kerouac is getting at something crucial here about how Hollywood and mass culture can shape our inner lives, and I wish he’d followed up on the hint, just as I wish we knew more about the insipid “mystery programs” that Marylou plays on the radio as they drive through the darkness of Texas.

What On the Road finally presents is a very limited version of life and its possibilities, and although Sal seems to acknowledge this by the end, I doubt that this is the message that the novel’s fans have taken away from it. It isn’t a model for the life of art, but a cautionary tale. Which isn’t to say that it isn’t worth reading, or even worth living for a time. Any book on how to live is necessarily constrained: Thoreau only lived at Walden Pond for two years, as a sort of contained experiment before moving on to a more conventional life, even as the traces of the sojourn still lingered. And what Kerouac gives us is a chronicle of the journey that every thinking person has to pass through on the way to something else, like the countless mistakes that Proust reminds us lie on the path to wisdom. In the end, Dean is still on the road, while Sal, like all writers, decides to settle for something more ordinary that will allow him to tell Dean’s story. And that’s where the true adventure begins.

Written by nevalalee

November 13, 2012 at 10:32 am

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