Tuesday, December 8, 2009

295. On the Road - Jack Kerouac

History: This book was written in April 1951, and published in 1957. A popular legend that On the Road was written in three weeks while Kerouac lived with Joan Haverty, his second wife, at 454 West 20th Street in Manhattan, New York, is apocryphal. It took nine years for the final copy to be published. Kerouac typed the manuscript on what he called "the scroll":[3] a continuous, one hundred and twenty-foot scroll of tracing paper sheets that he cut to size and taped together. The roll was typed single-spaced, without margins or paragraph breaks. Contrary to rumor, Kerouac said he used no stimulants during the brief but productive writing session, other than coffee. Viking Presss published On the Road: The Original Scroll in 2007. "The scroll" still exists — it was bought in 2001, by Jim Irsay (Indianapolis Colts football team owner), for $2.4 million, and is available for public viewing. This review is from the original scroll, released in 2007, not the original published book.
Plot: The book begins by introducing the catalyst for most of the adventures of the story: Neal Cassady. The narrator, Kerouac, is fascinated with the idea of humanity, and particularly his eclectic group of friends, jazz, the landscapes of the United States, and women.
Soon after Neal arrives in New York City, he meets Allen Ginsberg, Jack's closest friend in the city. Allen and Neal meet through Jack. Jack describes his fascination with these two men, and others he will meet along the road, as being part of his overall interest in otherworldly characters.
In July 1947, Kerouac is ready to begin his first foray across the continent towards the West Coast. His friend Henri Cru has sent an invitation to join him in Denver, with hints of worldwide travels aboard a ship. He sets out with fifty dollars in his pocket.
He journeys to Chicago, Illinois. He dates the narrative at 1947, marking it as a specific era in jazz history, “somewhere between its Charlie Parker Ornithology period and another period that began with Miles Davis,” and it inspires him to think of his friends “from one end of the country to the other…doing something so frantic and rushing about.” By hitchhiking, and bus rides, he ends up in Denver, and meets with his friends, Neal included. Eventually they head to San Francisco.
There, Jack takes a job as a night watchman at a boarding camp for merchant sailors waiting for their ship. His aversion to commitment and duty ensure that he does not hold this job for long, and he is soon on the road again, where he meets one of his biggest temptations.
Her name is Bee, and he meets her on the bus to Los Angeles, California. She is Mexican, and has run away from her husband. They spend “the next fifteen days…together for better or for worse.” Jack spends the better part of a week with Bee and her family in a migrant worker’s camp. The agrarian lifestyle initially appeals to Jack, but he wants to return back to New York, and Bee is left behind.
Kerouac's continued journey on the road is entwined with the making of Neal as the epic hero. Neal has spent time in prison, for stealing cars. His imprisonment, according to Jack, is when his heroic personality was solidified. Prison had the effect of fueling his obsession with the road. What makes him heroic to Kerouac is his free nature, and his reluctance to tie his spirit to social demands. The decline of Neal makes up the second part of the novel, and culminates in the end of Jack’s journeys.
The novel also depicts Neal's haphazard life with women. At the beginning of the novel, Neal is married to Luanne, a teenager, and, after they separate, he meets and lives with Carolyn, and gets an annullment from Luanne, then marries Carolyn. But then comes to pick up Jack in North Carolina (he is there with mother and sister) with Luanne in the car. They travel all over the US then, ragged and frequently running into trouble with the cops. Neal sometimes drives over 100 miles an hour, zooming across the flat plains of Nebraska.
Although Neal may have slept with Al Ginsberg during their late-night talks in Denver, he also slept with countless women on his road trips with Kerouac. The two were overly excited about any woman they came across. They had sexual thoughts and feelings towards most of them, and Cassady always seemed to be sleeping with or married to somebody. He was married to two women, Luanne and Carolyn, at the same time, and always seemed to be going across country to file divorce papers. He had children with multiple women, and was never around to take care of them because he was always on the road.
Carolyn throws Neal out several times in the novel, at one time screaming at him "Liar, Liar". But he eventually leaves Luanne too, with Jack,and goes back to Carolyn and his kids where he gets a decent job, but leaves her frequently for a girl named Diane.
Jack and Neal meet many characters on the road, and also meet up with old friends. At one point, they are staying with William Burroughs and his family in Louisiana, and Kerouac describes the couple's drug use and life style. . Kerouac, with his immigrant background has sympathy for poverty and minorities, he does not use sad descriptions when discussing minorities; through dialect and monologue narratives, and Neal, through animated exclamations, explain their excitement and appreciation for almost everything they see on the road, including minorities.
The travellers perk up as soon as they hit the Mexican border, and some of the novel's more memorable scenes depict their marijuana-infused introduction to Mexican culture, including a vivid (but expensive) sojourn to a bordello offering mambo music and underage prostitutes.
Upon arriving in Mexico City, Jack develops dysentery, and Neal leaves him behind, feverish and hallucinating.
The novel ends a year later in New York City. Neal comes back to New York to see Jack and arrange for Jack and his girlfriend to move to San Francisco with him. The arrangements to move fall through, because Neal arrives 5 weeks early and no one has saved enough money, and Neal returns to the West alone.
Jack closes the novel sitting on a pier during sunset, looking west. He reminisces on God, America, crying children, and the idea that "nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old.."
Review: “On the Road” in all of its versions is the story of a series of cross-country trips made by Kerouac between 1948 and 1950 — “trips” rather than “travels,” because they are all about covering ground, whether by hitchhiking, by bus or by drive-away car. The cardinal points are New York City, Denver and San Francisco, with spikes down to New Orleans, the San Joaquin Valley and finally Mexico. The trips are sometimes motored by impatience — if only the Rockies began on the other side of the Lincoln Tunnel! — but most often Kerouac revels in speed as an ecstatic medium, a way of concentrating as much experience and as many aesthetic and spiritual highs as possible into a week or less. Essential to the whole enterprise is Kerouac’s relationship with Neal Cassady (called Dean Moriarty in the novel), who is one of the greatest characters in American literature without any need for imaginative tinkering on the part of the author.
Meeting Neal Cassady, though, made it possible for him to write the mid-20th century’s answer to “Huckleberry Finn.” Cassady, with his need to move, his vast yahooing enthusiasm and his insatiable priapic drive, could have stepped out of Western legend. That he compulsively stole cars instead of guiding wagon trains and achieved enlightenment in bebop clubs rather than medicine lodges was merely a function of history. But he wasn’t a primitive, and was rather more than a found object. He read books and wrote sometimes spectacular letters, and he was more on top of the zeitgeist than his big-city admirers. He was a born hero and a euphoric lover of the world, who gave the Beats their soul, saving them — if just barely — from choking on their own mysticism.
In the six years it took for On the Road to be published, American culture changed dramatically: Elvis Presley altered the course of popular music; James Dean and Marlon Brando emerged as a new breed of brooding teenage icon; the painter Jackson Pollock came and went, his action paintings and the intense way he lived some kind of precursor to the 'nowness' that the Beats strived for in both art and life.
The novel was written so poetically, and I loved the descriptions of the landscapes and culture. Jack's positive outlook and sense of adventure was inspiring, very rarely complaining of the bad things - getting stuck in the mud, total poverty, and Neal's irresponsibility was not portrayed in a very negetive way.
I had to look past the treatment of women in the book, especially the way Neal treated his wives, and Jack's admiration of beauty and disgust of "fat" women. He seemed to see women as sexual objects. Neal called women "whores", without seeing his own behavior. But I had to get past that and see the novel for the poetic and painterly quality that to me makes it a fascinating work of art.
Opening Line: "I first met Neal not long after my father died... I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won't bother to talk about except that it really had something to do with my father's death and my awful feeling that everything was dead."
Closing Line: "I think of Neal Cassady."
Quotes: “the only people that interest me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing ... but burn, burn, burn like roman candles across the night.”
Rating: Excellent.

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