Two American Wanderers
Kerouac's "On The Road" Is an outstanding work to think about on America's Fourth of July. The following review dates from 2007 and would undoubtedly be different if I rewrote it today.
In the fifty years since its publication in 1957, Kerouac's "On the Road" has become an American classic. The book will bear a variety of interpretations: different readers have found and will continue to find many ways or reading and understanding "On the Road." Some readers see the mad journeys of the characters in the book as a seeking, religious in character. Other readers, see the protagonists as out for "kicks", "gurls", and wild times. Some see Dean Moriarty as the hero of the book -- as the protagonist of a new way of life which became known as 'beat'. (The term "beatnik" is not used in "On the Road".) But it is also possible to read "On the Road" as a rejection of Dean Moriarty and the life he represents. I have read this book several times, and with each reading have got something new from it. It is a passionately written work with a tone of poetry, bop, and movement. Oddly, the book didn't impress me when I first read it as an adolescent many years ago, but it has become one of my favorite novels.
"On the Road" is an autobiographical novel. The two major characters are Dean Moriarty who is based on a figure named Neal Cassady (1926 -- 1968) and Sal Paradise, the first-person narrator who is based on Kerouac (1922 -- 1969) himself. (Some early readers believed that Moriarty was the Kerouac figure, resulting in a serious misunderstanding of the book.) The action of the story takes place between 1947 and 1950. When the novel opens the reader hears Paradise's/Kerouac's inimitable voice: "I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up. I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won't bother to talk about, except that it had something to do with the miserably weary split-up and my feeling that everything was dead." Moriarty was born in Salt Lake City and had spent much of his youth in pool halls, reform school, and in prison, from which he had escaped. He came to New York City with his 16 year old wife, Marylou and met Kerouac and his friends. In following Moriarty with his energy, restlessness, endless movement, and sexual libido, Paradise thinks he might find his way out of his sadness and purposelessness.
The book tells of the friendship between Paradise and Moriarty and of their many reckless journeys back and forth through the United States. Paradise first travels alone, by bus and by hitchiking, to catch up with Moriarty in Denver and in San Francisco. Throughout their trips, Moriarty looks for his elderly father who, as did his son, lived a life of vagrancy and criminality, and was thought to be wandering as a hobo or in jail. The two, in the company of others, travel back to the East coast, to New Orleans, to meet "Old Bull Lee" (William Burroughs -- the author of "The Naked Lunch"), to San Francisco and Denver again, through Chicago and Detroit, back to New York City, to the West coast, and to Mexico City, where Moriarty, for the second time in the book abandons Paradise who has become ill with dysentery. In the final scenes of the book, the two wanderers have a reunion of sorts in New York City before Moriarty heads back to San Francisco to resume living with his second wife whom he has just divorced.
The book proceeds at a frenetic pace as Moriarty drives recklessly from coast to coast, usually in cars he has borrowed. The book shows the breadth of America as well as the questing of rootless, troubled individuals with no particular place to go. "Whee, Sal, we gotta go and never stop going till we get there," says Moriarty at one point. "Where we going man?" Sal asks. Moriarty responds, "I don't know but we gotta go."
Besides the broad, travel scenes, "On the Road", includes detailed descriptive passages of many individuated scenes -- jazz clubs in San Francisco and New York, seedy all-night theatres, small hotels and road side stands, cold water flats in New York, a brothel in Mexico, and much else. There are strong characterizations of several characters in addition to Moriarty and Paradise, including Moriarty's three wives, Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Ed Dunkel and his wife Galatea -- who delivers a stunning rebuke late in the novel to Moriarty and his way of life. One of the finest extended passages in the book is the story in Part 1 of Paradise's brief affair with a young Mexican girl named Terry, which begins as the two are passengers on a bus to Los Angeles.
But the focus of this book is on Paradise and Moriarty and on how Moriarty changes Sal Paradise's life. Paradise is a writer who has just published his first novel. (Kerouac's first book, "The Town and the City".) Paradise is torn between the fast-paced, romantic, woman-filled life he sees in Moriarty and his own feelings for a more conventional, settled life with a purpose -- as represented in "On the Road" by the character of his aunt. Paradise admires Moriarty deeply for his energy and attempts to maximize experience and optimism, while he is also troubled by Moriarty's violence, criminality and irresponsibility and by his treatment of his three wives. Galatea Dunkel's lengthy tirade against Moriarty, which I mentioned above, seems to me one of the key passages of "On the Road."
After Moriarty abandons Sal in Mexico, Sal eventually makes his way back to New York City where he meets the woman who will become his second wife and makes what will prove to be an unsuccessful attempt at a domestic, settled life. Moriarty is sent packing alone into a cold night back to San Francisco. The book ends with an ambiguity in the relationship between Paradise and Moriarty which mirrors the ambiguity of the entire story and which is at the heart of the divergent interpretations of "On the Road." Many current readers are inclined, contrary to the way many of the book's earliest readers understood "On the Road" to see Kerouac as rejecting, in large part, the life of protagonists of "On the Road", rather than celebrating it. Much can be said for this reading. But Moriarty has a tight hold on Paradise, who gives him up, if he does so, only with difficulty. As the book concludes, Paradise writes: "... nobody knows what's going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old. I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty, the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty."