Review of On the Road by Jack Kerouac
When I moved to D.C., some friends and I started a book club. Our goal was to work our way through the classics of English/American Literature and read the books that everyone else seemed to have read in high school or college. Books which, for some reason, had never actually wound up on the required reading lists for any of our classes. At the top of that list was Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957), which was supposed to be a classic and was included on several lists of the top English-language novels in the history of ever. So we dove right in, ready to be dazzled the best that American prose had to offer.
If you’re not familiar with the story of On the Road (such as it is), this loosely autobiographical novel follows beatnik Sal Paradise (a stand-in for the author, Jack Kerouac) and his buddy Dean Moriarty (based on writer Neal Cassady) as they road-trip back and forth across late 1940’s America. They do a lot of drugs, listen to a lot of jazz and poetry (well, “poetry”), go to a lot of parties, and romance a lot of women (if you can call it “romancing”). Sal is on a spiritual quest of sorts—trying to find … I don’t know. The meaning of Life, the Universe, and Everything, I guess. Dean mostly wants to smoke pot and have a lot of sex.
I hated every minute of this book. I hated the complete lack of any discernible plot—“stoners go to parties and hook up with girls” is not my idea of a show-stopping storyline. I hated the appalling writing, the style of which can only be described as “blitzed”.
I realize this is not the universal reaction to Kerouac’s writing—he wound up on those ‘best novel’ lists for a reason, after all. Supposedly, this novel has all sorts of Important Things to Say about the Beat Generation and its dissatisfaction with the materialistic culture and conformity and, like, rules, man. Clearly some people like it, and perhaps you are (or will be) one of them. If you dig the drug-and-booze-addled ramblings of shiftless vagabonds, and the neighborhood dive bar is closed or you’re worried that a foray into the wilds of the city night life might be ill-advised, then by all means read this book. If, however, you prefer coherency, intelligence, substance, and anything within shouting distance of moral fortitude, you would be better served to look elsewhere.
But even more than the mind-numbingly dull plot, even more than the abysmal writing, I hated the characters. More specifically, I hated Dean. By the end of the novel, Dean has acquired (and, at various times, abandoned) no fewer than three wives and four children. In three years. He meets a girl, he likes her, he sleeps with her for a while, and maybe they even get married. Heaven only knows why Dean bothers to marry these women. His vows are about as meaningful as a United Nations sanction. As soon as the mood strikes him, he’s off again, without a backward glance at the wives and children he leaves behind. Responsibility means nothing to Dean. Commitment, well, it might as well be a Martian word for all the significance it has to this ‘hero.’ He has absolutely no compunction about leaving these women literally holding the baby. He is, quite simply, a selfish, sexist pig. For Dean, women are just another consumable—like the marijuana he smokes or the parties he attends. He only pays attention to the women in his life when he feels a craving coming on. Dean is driven by one thing and one thing only: his own desires. Dean is all Dean cares about. He is a walking id. And he is awful.
In Dean, we see the end result of a life spent searching for self-satisfaction. This is where our human depravity will take us. Our desires are not to be the lodestar of our lives—if we chase after them, we will find ourselves doing so at the expense of all those around us. Their well-being will be constantly, repeatedly sacrificed in favor of our enjoyment. Their discomfort, inconvenience, and pain are necessary costs that we are all too willing to pay to ensure our own pleasure, no matter how fleeting. People cease to be people, created in the image of God, possessed of personal dignity, and deserving of respect. Instead, they become objects whose worth is determined—and limited—by their capacity to gratify our own desires.
This is not a recipe for “a good life” in any sense of the phrase. It is, in a word, evil. And moreover, it is self-defeating. Because self-indulgence and gratification do not actually achieve the end desired. This is not a road to fulfillment, satisfaction, peace, or “IT”. It is a dead end.
King Solomon, who was top dog when it came to self-indulgence and personal gratification, learned this the hard way:
I said to myself, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.” But that also proved to be meaningless. […]
I denied myself nothing my eyes desired;
I refused my heart no pleasure. […]
Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done
and what I had toiled to achieve,
everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind;
nothing was gained under the sun. (Ecclesiastes 2:1, 10-11)
As I read On the Road, in those few moments when I wasn’t overcome by loathing and disgust, I was struck by how utterly pointless Dean’s (and, to some extent, Sal’s) pursuit of pleasure really was. Rather than finding satisfaction in honest work, committed relationships, and self-sacrificing love—and, even more than that, in God, who alone can fully satisfy—they hunted for truth and meaning in complete and total selfishness. The emptiness—the meaninglessness—of this quest is almost heartbreaking.
The semi-autographical nature of this story makes it doubly tragic, because Sal and Dean aren’t just made up characters doing awful (but fictional) things so that we can learn from their mistakes. Real men lived out this story—maybe not in the details, but in the main. Their sad stories don’t get any happier, either. Kerouac died of cirrhosis at age 47. A comatose Cassady was found by some railroad tracks in Mexico after a night of partying, and never regained consciousness. He was 41.
On the Road is said to have been hugely influential on an entire generation—and many in future (and current) generations find that Kerouac’s “spiritual” “quest” resonates with their own desires for freedom and meaning. They see in Sal and Dean an experience to be replicated, to be imitated.
I remember hearing, back in the 1990’s, that a number of young women who saw Pretty Woman decided to run off and become prostitutes because of the glamorous lifestyle enjoying by Julia Roberts in the film. I have no idea whether there was any truth to this rumor, but I recall well the first time I saw the film—how awful her life was and how anomalous her happily-ever-after—and thought to myself, “Were those girls even watching the movie?”
I wonder the same thing about those who read Kerouac with wistful longing.