Kerouac: The Book Report
"Jack Keorouac’s pearl stands more for who he was than what he was. He was – as is often said – the voice of the Beat Generation. His words are stronger for what they imply more what they actually say."
Jack Kerouac, Fifty Two Years Later
(originally published in 2009)
On the Road is a book many years in the making for me. I had heard so much about it for so long and yet, like all of the other “classics” in its genre, I knew I would only read it when I was actually ready to read it. We are usually presented with this type of material way too early in our lives.
I faked my way through countless novels during high school, spending more time pretending to get through the books as opposed to sincerely trying to understand and appreciate them. In essence those literary icons come to us way before we are ready to ably process them.
I still cite To Kill a Mockingbird as my ultimate classic of all time simply because it managed to hold me for a longer time than any of the other books I was required to read. It somehow became a joyful educational experience and whether it still tops my list after all this time is something I’d almost rather not know. I prefer for it to remain the champ whether it deserves the status or not.
I don’t remember if On The Road was part of the curriculum when I was in school although I doubt simply because of the prevalent conservative nature of our school board which probably shunned a book so wildly championing irreverence and wanton drug use. Knowing now what I knew then the book would have simply served as inspiration for a student’s verboten culture and frankly, at the time, little about me was verboten. My, how times have changed.
My present copy of On The Road came via a friend of mine who wanted it to be a prelude and primer for my own maiden road voyage; one that would take me from home to Austin Texas, to Florida and back. While my route was much more planned and comfortable than Kerouac’s the spirit of our excursions was largely the same. We were both venturing into the relative unknown, some fifty years apart.
I could never complete the book before I took off on my own adventure, partly because there was little time to do so and partly because I found it a difficult book to get through. While it’s widely-renowned as the definitive tome to all road adventures it simply didn’t strike in a way I was expecting. Getting through it proved to be a bigger effort than I had expected. I was looking for something it wasn’t.
Now that I’ve finally gotten through it I see On The Road for what it truly is. Contrary to what I’d heard, the book is not a literary gem. It meanders and wanders and is written in a tone that is neither poetic nor lyrical. It is not the work of a literary genius. It’s the work of a cultural icon; a man more pioneer than poet. Jack Keorouac’s pearl stands more for who he was than what he was. He was – as is often said – the voice of the Beat Generation. His words are stronger for what they imply more what they actually say.
Jack Kerouac, Sal Paradise and, in turn, the protagonist Dean Moriarty, are metaphors to a (then) new counter culture in much the same way Elvis Presley is revered for his iconic and revolutionary stature within his time. In their respective venues each spoke out for others too anonymous or too timid to speak out for themselves. They represented the spearhead of a confused and restless generation; a generation having spent too much of their time (and to some, their lives) blindly following the diligent path of duty and honour and country. They were, in effect, the first to question authority and what it all meant. For once the status quo was up for debate.
Which is why Jack Kerouac and Dean Moriarty and On The Road were so influential in their time and also why they maintain a certain timeless significance to this day. They are icons of a bygone era and of a time almost trivial by today’s standards. The concepts of life on the road and of the general populace questioning authority are not foreign anymore. In fact they’re almost passé. But that – that commonality – is in no small measure due to entities like On The Road. Cliche is only possible when enough people have walked the trail blazed by cultural symbols like Jack Kerouac. Someone had to be the first through and, in the literary sense, Kerouac stood for a new way of life and a new kind of thinking. He saw possibilities and life beyond traditional (metaphoric and geographical) borders. He didn’t see cultural existence as simply an Us and Them scenario. Only through the immersion of humanities could we could we actually begin to see the world on a larger scale.
No doubt Kerouac scared us with his limitless proclamations. It wasn’t that he knew where the borders were, he just knew where they weren’t. For once things lacked definition. Society and our place within it was indefinable. There were endless questions and even fewer answers. In fact, no answer was an answer. It was a notion few could grasp.
I would like to say that reading On The Road changed my life but it didn’t. I had hoped for elegant prose and literary passages I would quote endlessly but again, that wasn’t what I got from reading it. The story is disjointed and inelegant and reads like more as a diary than an epic tale and, in some respects, that’s exactly how it’s supposed to read. Kerouac embarked on this not to ultimately reach a conclusion but to simply take pleasure in the mystery of the journey. It was his commitment to an ethos and to a lifestyle that spoke to him on a very visceral level. It was the randomness of the saga that ultimately made the most sense to him. It – the trip itself – was, in effect, never meant to conclude. He would not come to a realization or a magic epiphany. There was no eternal metaphor. There was no definitive life lesson. There was no literary resolution and therein lies the enchantment of On The Road.
It was not eloquent but spoke clearly. It’s not – as I had hoped - a book about life on the road but a book about a life that just happened to take place on the road. Before this I never knew the difference. I do now.