On The Road

by Jack Kerouac

On the Road CoverHearing, in passing, of a relationship between Jack Kerouac and William S. Burroughs, I made the foolish assumption that On the Road would remind me of Naked Lunch. So it should come as no surprise that I was startled to see that Kerouac’s novel is nothing of the sort, with a wide-eyed, innocent young man in our narrator, Sal, travelling across the country, searching for purpose and happiness. Sal starts off seeing the good in everyone and everything, but gradually changes as his vast journey is well underway, from the happy-go-lucky, naive man he once was to one who is jaded and much more melancholic. That being said, I think we can all agree that the more profound and interesting changes surround Sal’s friend and travel companion, Dean.

Dean, though unscrupulous in his pursuits, has an extreme lust for life, partying all night long, courting––and, falling madly in and out of love with––multiple women, and generally, recklessly, living it large. This exuberance is what attracts Sal to Dean, but he can’t keep up; Dean just keeps going and going in his search for IT, as he describes it, until he burns out. And, when he does crash, the true meaning of friendship with Dean comes out, with his exploitation of his friends and acquaintances causing the eventual alienation of most of them. It comes down to Sal to be Dean’s sole defender, despite numerous times being on the receiving end of Dean’s dirty side. (It was in such a situation, with Sal left abandoned, penniless and lost in a strange town, where the Burroughs came out in Kerouac’s prose for probably the only time in the novel.) Ultimately, Dean is the source of much of On the Road’s excitement and adversity.

While briefly perusing reviews of On the Road, I see that many, many people absolutely hated the story, which came as a shock to me, Kerouac’s masterpiece being the most spectacular thing I’ve had the pleasure of reading in quite some time. The main criticism seems to surround this notion of Kerouac “typing, but not writing,” which I can only assume has to do with what little actually “happens” in the course of the story, but I can only feel that this completely misses the point. Much like a story such as Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, in which the plot is very light, but seems to be received much better on Goodreads––though, On the Road doesn’t have the benefit of drug-induced excess, to the same extent––it’s more about the journey and the author’s insights, in this case into truth, friendship, loss, and sorrow. I guess it’s hard to explain, but I suppose I’m just lucky enough to get IT.