Jack Kerouac’s exhuberant novel, On the Road, follows a group of restless young friends criss-crossing America in second-hand cars while finding their ‘kicks’ in jazz, girls, drugs, and intense conversations about love, poetry, and serenity. Exposing the underground Beat lifestyle of the 1950’s, Kerouac celebrates the defiance of a generation chasing the freedom promised by the American Dream while committing themselves to instinct and emotion.
Sal Paradise, a struggling writer living off veteran benefits and a generous aunt, narrates the novel with an awestruck wonder at his collected experiences of traveling the road. Frustrated and stagnate with his negative, bookish, and pretentious friends around campus, Sal yearns for new visions, richer experiences, and a release for the stirrings accumulating in his soul. The unpredictable, dizzying tornado of energy named Dean Moriarty embodies Sal’s attitude of the spiritual potential that life contains and Sal “shambles after” him, hoping to reach that potential.
Sal’s hero is regarded as a long-lost brother and in Dean’s “excited way of speaking I [Sal] heard again the voices of old companions and brothers under the bridge… ” Born in Denver, Dean’s mother died young and his father became a drunk hobo, leaving Dean in a childhood complete with reform school and harmless criminal offenses. Sal explains that Dean’s criminality “was not something that sulked and sneered; it was a wild yea-saying overburst of American joy; it was Western, the west wind, an ode from the plains….
Dean’s passionate disregard for social responsibility and the chaos he invites into his life, such as juggling two wives and stealing cars, results in a mad dash for the opposite side of the country, because the road turns his passion into fulfillment and the road is his soul’s journey towards holiness. To Dean, the only way to ‘dig’ the world is with a car because “the road must eventually lead to the whole world.
After a stationary, and consequently, frenzied period of time in Denver, Dean and Sal bolt for the road and Sal remarks that, “It was remarkable how Dean could go mad and then continue with his soul… calmly and sanely as though nothing had happened. ” “On the Road” takes place in the 1950’s, a time when rampid paranoia controlled America and a new generation came to view society as hypocritical, superficial, greedy, and harmful to the individual and his creativity.
On the Road” is filled with smoky, crowded jazz joints, since nothing symbolizes America’s freedom and creativity like jazz music. One can only imagine Dean and Sal “in the warm, mad night, hearing a wild tenorman blowing at the peak of a wonderfully satisfactory free idea, a rising and falling riff that went “EE-YAH! ” to a crazier “EE-DE-LEE-YAH! ” The other setting is simply the road, with “the white line in the middle of the highway” which “unrolled and hugged our left front tire as if glued to our groove.
In a car engulfed by night, the speed of motion only blurs passing images of open fields, mountains, and small towns, leaving little to distract Sal’s personal thoughts and Dean’s rhapsodic utterances. The most striking quality of On the Road is Kerouac’s spontaneous style, which perfectly matches the instinctual attitude of the Beats. Kerouac frowns upon articulation, believing that the first words that spring to mind are the correct words to convey the experience. The purity of the experience is the most important thing and if one stops to carefully think about what he wants to say, the result will somehow be impure and contrived.
Kerouac wanted his writing to come from his gut and not his literal mind; a style that must convey a feeling if not a precise meaning. Dean’s outbursts throughout the novel are an example of this style and when he says,”I can go anywhere in America and get what I want because it’s the same in every corner….. We give and take and go in the incredibly complicated sweetness zigzagging every side,” one knows that Dean is sincerely trying to communicate from his heart and not painfully calculating his thoughts.
Kerouac seems to write by letting one word spark an idea for the next word until the result reveals an exceptional sentence like, “the only people for me [Sal] are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “AWWW! ” The sheer enthusiasm and intense emotions that Kerouac spontaneously invokes makes “On the Road” a memorable journey and novel.