On the Road: A Literature Review

Many moons ago I had an idea for a ground-breaking piece of literature. It was a memoir of sorts and the narrative would have revolved around a period of time in my life where I lived abroad. A study of the human condition it would have been, and an award winner to boot. However, after getting several (a lot more than several, in fact) thousand words into the project, I abandoned the idea. The more I wrote, the more I realised that the story simply wasn’t interesting, not to myself and not, I would expect, to others. Indeed, there is only so many ways in which you can say, “I went here and I did this, and while I did this the attractive woman didn’t reciprocate my feelings” before you want to slap yourself for being so insufferable. This was a moment of self-awareness, one that changed the direction and manner in which I write.

Unfortunately for me, and for anybody else who has had the misfortune of reading his book, Jack Kerouac did not have that revelation. At no point in his self-admitted drug-induced three week stupor of typing up On the Road did he, or anyone around him, say to him that the utter drivel that he was bringing forth into the world was tripe and that humanity would be better off if he just used that long manuscript roll for toilet paper. Alas, without those kind words from Ginsberg or his dear, sweet mammy or anyone else in the vicinity, the world was subjected to the most overhyped piece of garbage since the invention of the latrine. At least latrines funnel raw sewage away from me, instead of placing it directly into my hand.

When it comes down to it, On the Road is simply a boring experience. And that boredom comes across as the driving force of the plot. There’s no call to action here, no heroic duty—just some guy who wants to get out of doing real work so goes across the country to party. Kerouac—or Sal Paradise as he calls himself—hitchhikes from New York to San Francisco (spending most of that time in the passenger seat swigging whiskey while others do the heavy lifting), drinks and smokes it up once in San Francisco. When he runs out of money he asks his aunt to send him more money (in reality it was his mother, but that takes the sheen off the coolness factor when it’s a grown man begging his mother for pocket money). When that money runs out he finds a temporary job before quitting that because it’s too hard and opts to return home to New York.

Several times he repeats this trip, with each journey slowly eroding his friendship with Dean Moriarty, a man with whom no sane person would ever wish to associate in the first place. Somehow it takes the entire novel (and several years) for Kerouac—Paradise—to realise this blindingly obvious fact. When he’s not fawning over or falling out with Moriarty, he’s detailing conversations with people who are even less interesting than himself. Allen Ginsberg, who is so bland he puts even himself in a catatonic state when reciting his own work, is heavily featured, as is, to a lesser extent Burroughs, who only turns up when Kerouac needs to shift to harder drug use to show off the world he inhabits. Women exist solely to be slept with, or to be there to complain about Moriarty’s partying. When they dare to engage in the same activities as Moriarty or Paradise, well, that is a sign that they are harlots. Seems odd for a group of people who made sexual liberation a core of their philosophy to complain about the sexual liberation of others. Hypocritical, some might argue…

A lot is made of Kerouac’s writing style; his jazz-infused, spontaneous, stream-of-consciousness prose is a large part of why he carries such a big reputation in his niche section of the literary world. Spontaneous it may be, but that doesn’t make it good. It also goes to highlight a lack of creativity in his description: nights are always inky in Kerouac’s world. In fact, I would go so far to say that he is not truly spontaneous but rather a rambler. In spoken word, a lack of filter may be endearing to some; on paper it’s a waste of time and ink and paper. Describing the landscape to build the scene is always welcome—detailing every weed and trying to ascribe some reference to it is not. 

Howl is awful, too. But that’s for another day.

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