Reading: On the Road, Again 

Pushing 40, Jack Kerouac's paean to sensuality still qualifies as a dangerous book.

It's the end of summer as I write this, and it feels like it. The baseball season's winding down, and though last year's heroes may have escaped the cellar, and this year's version of Cinderella has kept things interesting, it's pretty clear nobody's going to win anything. Vacations are over, school has begun, and everyone I know seems to be getting sick again--with late-summer colds, or fall colds, or the flu, or their jobs, husbands, wives, kids, lovers, or their lack of them. We keep reminding each other that we'll be better again tomorrow, next week, as soon as the rain stops, or starts, the temperature gets a little warmer, or cooler. Then things are better for a few days, and we think we're through with it. And then we're not.

It may be just the season, but there doesn't seem any way around it: by all but the most delusionary math, my friends and I--a whole generation--are done with our youth, and whatever we've come to in fits and starts is stuck in the fits. Stuck, as Jack Kerouac might have said, sick in the heart of the American wilderness.

I've just finished reading On the Road again, 21 years after my first reading at age 19. I reread it partly because I've been immersed in the Beats, writing a biography of Lawrence Ferlinghetti. And partly it was the season. Summer, after all, is when everything should be breaking out, when it's time to do something, anything, when it's time to get moving. I didn't think the book would be much more than a bit of harmless nostalgia, and I was curious about what I might think of it now as a work of fiction.

What I found, amazingly, is that almost 35 years after it was first published, 40 years after it was finished, this book might still be dangerous--if a book can still be called dangerous in this postmodern, beyond shock, visual culture.

Oh, come on, I hear some of my serious literary friends (not to mention my wife) say, you can't be serious. So juvenile, they all agree, this paean to sensuality, with its accumulation of debauchery--sex, drugs, jazz, the promise of more, always more, down the endless road. Its spirit is the very essence of adolescence, the curiosity and hunger for experience that drives its explorations.

For many it became almost a bible at one time or another, as we finished college, or took vacations, or time off, or just dropped out entirely and got in our cars and drove. Some of us found a little, or more than a little, of what Kerouac wrote about as we crossed the Great Plains and Nebraska, as we topped Berthoud Pass, as we breathed the lush California green and walked the streets of San Francisco, Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, all to the sound track of rock 'n' roll, which by the 60s had replaced Kerouac's jazz as the generation's ticket to excitement and pure sensuality.

But sooner or later, after our trips over America, Mexico, Europe, or farther, most of us "grew up." We got "careers," we got married, had children. Now a lot of us pack them all in station wagons or vans and try for some echo of that adventure to anywhere. It's not the same, of course. And it's not just the freeways and the interchangeable McDonald's and Burger Kings and Arby's and Hardee's, the airbrushed heads on the billboards, the whole monoculture that has virtually eliminated America's regional distinctions.

Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, Kerouac's heroes, were constantly running away from all ideas of family, from anything we'd call responsibility. At one point, just before they're about to leave for another night of "kicks," one of the women they've collected berates Moriarty for his irresponsibility, his selfishness, his complete inconsideration of all but himself. And her point is well-taken. Moriarty's self-involvement seems obvious and characteristically adolescent. It's probably not too much to say that "family" is the glue that holds our whole civilization together, and that family's survival depends upon our growing beyond the pursuit of sensual pleasures, the pursuit that seems Dean's raison d'etre, as he leaves wives, girlfriends, and illegitimate children in his wake.

Growing up is harder for some of us, especially for some men. And then, after years of concentration on family and career, there is the specter of the famous mid-life crisis, another term from the psychobabble vocabulary we've picked up in the years since the book came out. A couple decades of work, consolidating our circumstances--if not wife, kids, house, and job, then some facsimile--leave us wondering if that's all there is and yearning to break out. If not one of them ourselves, we certainly hear often enough of the fortysomething and older men chasing younger women or more perverse pleasures.

But the attitudes that will alienate, if not offend, some don't obscure On the Road's real energy and attraction, and its real point. For much as the book's Dionysian celebration makes it attractive to men, and especially to men who might be chafing at the mortal pressures of "older," it is the connection with deeper truths, the mythological resonances the book evokes, that make it a candidate for larger significance.

Even if we have taken on--even gladly--responsibilities of family and society, Kerouac's siren song eloquently wakens whatever residue of longing we all have for escape, for the taste of the unknown, for the wilderness that is our heritage as Americans. One main reason, of course, is the prose itself. Kerouac may have been a wild man by conventional standards, but even more he was a fine writer. His singular sentence rhythms, conditioned by Thomas Wolfe, by Charlie Parker and other jazz greats, brought to the page a lyrical urgency that stood as perfect analogue to the forces burbling under the gray-flannel-suit culture of the 50s. Coupled with his knack for the telling particular, the vividly rendered detail that brought to life an America hidden from most, these sentences became the new music of a whole generation.

And it's an especially powerful call because Sal and Dean's pursuit was not, ever, primarily for sensual experience. What most everyone overlooked, or didn't see, or couldn't understand in the 50s, or else dismisses with a Big Chill wave in 1990, is that the quest in this book was fundamentally, and always, spiritual. Sal was attracted to Dean for the absolute present-consciousness he manifested at all times. Dean is the quintessential Zen hero, the "Holy Fool," as Sal calls him, completely unburdened of the load of ideas, of appetite for status, for material accumulation, that was and is the religion infecting most of America and the West.

Dean is looking for his father, who is his Father, who is another American hobo, radically free, completely unself-conscious, wide open to experience, endlessly creative, fully and nakedly alive. That is Dean's condition as well when he is fully possessed of his "madness," and the book is the saga of Sal's learning its meaning and its way. Each step on the road opens more doors--not in any linear fashion; this isn't so much clear progress as an accumulation of vision that has no real end. In the middle of the book, Sal for the first time sparks the journey on the road, with Dean leaving his woman and provisionally settled life to come along, and not incidentally to drive. Dean is, of course, always and endlessly driving the car, the modern Odyssean ship. Finally, they go to Mexico, which becomes a mythical land, Dean's heaven, where the inhabitants are free and unfettered, and one with their surroundings--so unlike Americans. There Sal experiences his own unity with the landscape--it becomes him, and he it. And yet he gets sick in Mexico City, and Dean abandons him there; when Sal gets well, he too goes back to New York. It seems a repeated pattern, like his leaving the Mexican girl Terry and her migrant-farm-worker family in the orchards of southern California, which also seemed a kind of simple, earthy almost-paradise. Sal is, above all, an American, and lost in the way of Americans. It is his condition. When he leaves Dean alone on the streets of New York City at the book's end, it is a melancholy conclusion, but we are sure it is not a real finish. Sal has learned from Dean all that he had to, and now Sal, like us, is on his own.

OK, you say, a good book. Maybe it even has some importance beyond the social-historical wave whose crest it helped define. But dangerous?

Over the course of a month or two in 1969, around the time I first read the book, I, like so many, had to try it. I hitched by myself from Minneapolis, where I lived, to Chicago, to Washington, D.C., to stay with a woman I'd met a couple months before (still a girl, in the parlance of the time). I figured I could convince her to sleep with me, if not come with me the rest of the way, but she did neither. I went on--I got a ride to Los Angeles (and was denied admission to Disneyland on account of my long hair), then took a bus to Santa Barbara, where anti-Vietnam protesters had burned down the Bank of America that spring and where a girl I'd met on the bus offered to put me up. She didn't sleep with me either, but the beach at Isla Vista was lovely, and I'd have stayed longer, except that her roommate, a fairly large, bearded type, began grumbling more and more pointedly about things disappearing from his room. Though I was certainly innocent, the point was clear, and I hitched up the coast toward San Francisco and got a ride out of San Luis Obispo in the back of a doddering panel truck, where a dozen or so collected hikers passed around joints and beer, amazingly reminiscent of one of the scenes in On the Road, in fact. In Oakland I looked up another girl I knew, who put me up. She didn't sleep with me either, but she and her roommates had a pool in their apartment complex, and I spent a lot of days reading and walking around San Francisco and Berkeley, meeting other travelers my age, smoking more pot, and discussing rock 'n' roll and the revolution before I flew back to the midwest in time for fall classes. Despite the sexual disappointments, it was a good trip.

Still, I envied the wild adventures of Paradise and Moriarty, finding mine a pale shadow. There was a lot of tedium, and most of the people I met on the way seemed to me dull or loudmouths or worse. There were none of the illuminations I'd hoped for. Part of the trouble, I realized, was that I didn't share Paradise and Moriarty's unself-conscious enterprise. But I learned I could do it, survive, and see things no school or job could show me.

In the coming years I took other trips. I had my own '63 Chevy for a while, and in the mid-70s a van to live in while on the road for a time with my wife of those days (the one who wouldn't sleep with me in Washington).

I miss those trips now, but "miss" hardly describes it. A lot of the time I can't talk about it at all.

It's ten after two in the afternoon here in Chicago, where I live in 1990, and I've got about 20 minutes, give or take ten, until my three-year-old twins wake up from their nap. Pretty cozy, I'm supposed to say. After a try at living in the woods in the 70s, building my own house, getting fired from the county unemployment office (for sleeping in the vacant middle office while the boss was out drinking endless coffee), from three carpenter jobs, quitting an asphalt-shoveling job, and getting divorced, I've come back. I've grown up, married again, assumed the fabled responsibilities, settled down.

Of course the time for the other work I need to do--writing, necessary correspondence, anything else--will be gone when the boys wake. And forget about any relaxation, mindless sitting, reading, anything but child- and house- centered labor, which begins every day about six AM and this morning included dressing, breakfasting, and entertaining the children before my wife got up in time to take them to the day-care center, where they'll be until I have to get them at noon--because today is her day to play tennis, though I've got three separate projects that need to be finished before they're going to be. After the daily yelling at each other about who's spent more time taking care of the kids and whose deadlines are more pressing (a "modern woman," she's finishing a PhD, teaching, writing fiction, and feels equally beleaguered), she did finally agree to take care of them from supper until their bedtime if I have their supper ready. But by then it will be too late for one of my deadlines, and, as always, I'll be so exhausted I won't be able to do much about the others. Then there's the monthly nightmare of the mortgage payment, the constant strain over money, and I'm thinking, with my wife's urging, that I should get another, better job soon. I am, she once said to me, in a voice I am still unable to hear as ironic, the "man."

Needless to say, whatever "man" it is, his distance from Sal and Dean, from where he was in those long-ago days, is hopelessly beyond measure. I want more than anything to get in the car and go--maybe to that cabin I built and still have up in northern Wisconsin, or to visit friends around the country, or Mexico, or farther. Anywhere. Meantime, I smoke a little more, drink a little more, look for another diversion after the kids are in bed and I'm too exhausted to do anything else but too wound up to go to sleep. The truth is, I don't seem to be going anywhere. The summer's about over, and around here there never was any vacation. Around here, as far as I can see, there isn't going to be any. It is, as Kerouac wrote, "sad," in the full, desperate, dead-end meaning he gave to the word.

I'm not by a long shot the only one with these frustrations, I know. And finding a novel that inflames them isn't all that hard. The travel-quest genre, from Homer to any number of novels that come out every year, is one of the oldest and most universal. This one's re-visioning of that ancient quest got a lot of attention partly because it was such a lone voice in the heady self-congratulatory spirit of uniformity that characterized the mid-50s. It brought alive the newest version of the outlaw-misfit, that great American hero, and was the first to see America through the windows of a car, still our most common everyday view. And then the frantic questing it described grew to be a common experience among a generation's youth who came of age against the social and political pressures their elders had fashioned in the 60s.

Those years are long gone, we know, but much as we might be tempted to shelve On the Road as historical artifact, it keeps breathing. A whole new generation is keeping the book in print--an "anniversary edition" came out in 1987, colleges and universities are offering courses in Beat-generation literature, and the revival, if that's what it is, of interest in Kerouac and his compatriots isn't just historical curiosity. Young people have never been noted for that, most of them anyway. The fact is, the forces that wanted to ignore or suppress the book's radical, oppositional view in 1957 (helping, not incidentally, to make it a best-seller then) still exist and have resurfaced in new versions and with renewed power.

Kerouac himself wound up in his mother's house in Florida, to which he continually returned from all his travels, fat and alcoholic, and finally dead of all of it. Whatever illumination he received from the road, from the people he knew--Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Gary Snyder, the "Mardou Fox" of The Subterraneans, all of whom he wrote about in later books--never opened doors for him to any room he could live in. He wound up even more completely, irrevocably lost than any of his characters.

But it's always a mistake to confuse the book, the characters with the man, even in the case of Kerouac, whose biographical verisimilitudes were as close as he could make them. Though he found, as we all seem to, that there is no such thing as living in a permanent state of ecstasy, that doesn't invalidate the experiences. The illuminations, the vitality he showed us, the pure living energy against the stultifying, numbing, institutional conventions around him, were real; their truth is clear in the vivid electricity on every page. And it is the truth he saw, felt, and manifested that makes this book especially interesting after all these years.

The kind of radical freedom Dean and Sal lived out is always threatening to the social fabric. By definition, it challenges established order. It's not just because it seems so much "fun"--we all realize that "fun" is just another variety of ecstasy whose continual chase can only lead to an abysmal end. But Dean's clarity, his ability to cut through the superficial and live the role of the Holy Fool, is something we not only admire but need, always and continually.

In one of Dean and Sal's later meetings, they are listening to baseball on radio at Sal's aunt's house in Florida. In fact, they're listening to three different games simultaneously, switching channels, trying to keep track of everything at once. It's an almost slapstick metaphor of the book's theme: the pursuit of consciousness, of knowledge, the drive to be aware at all times of everything and thereby live completely, in a state of pure awareness.

Though the scene and the book are nearly 40 years old, there's something in our time that echoes frighteningly from those years, that smacks of some of the same forces that spawned the repressive conformity and McCarthyist hysteria of the 50s. We see it in the famous war on drugs--not that drugs aren't a real threat, just as communism was a real threat, but the futile police-state measures adopted to curb both lead inevitably to the same repressive excesses. In the McCarthy years all manner of people were required to sign "loyalty oaths" as conditions for just about anything. This year winners of NEA literary fellowships were required to sign a statement that they "will not engage in the unlawful manufacture, distribution, dispensation, possession or use of a controlled substance in conducting any activity with the grant." Of course some of our most important writers--Kerouac, Burroughs, Ginsberg, and some of their most distinguished forerunners, including Paul Bowles and Aldous Huxley--would not have met such criteria during crucial times in their careers. The threat becomes justification for increasing intrusions into private lives, for discrimination against views various authorities might find offensive or threatening, for restrictions against those who voice unpopular positions. Against, finally, anything too original, or genuinely, authentically creative.

The ability to solve any problem, whether scientific or social, depends upon that genuine creativity, depends upon the ability to be fully aware, to see newly, to cut through conventional paradigms. It is necessarily risky, but in this country the best of our heritage has always been our very embrace of the wilderness, our courageous explorations of its reaches. It is the spirit that has led to genuine invention--the material, intellectual, and spiritual discoveries that have made the best of civilization.

Fostering such real progress doesn't necessarily require going on the road again, much less throwing over the family. The nakedness the book teaches is a psychological and spiritual stripping away of excess baggage in pursuit of that genuine awareness, that clarity of vision. If it is true, it is risky. But both personally and as a society, it is work we forsake at our peril. It is why such a book lives.

On the Road by Jack Kerouac, Penguin, $6.95.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.

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