Revisiting On the Road

This past April I read Jack Kerouac’s On the Road for at least the second time in my life. Like Sal and Dean’s sojourns across America, some complete, some derailed, some half-starts and some hardly remembered at all, it’s hard to say exactly how many times I’ve delved into this novel. Even my copy is frayed and yellowed, coffee-stained and missing both the front and back covers. The narrative inside, however, spoke to me first as an impressionable early teen and influenced my shaky relationship with conventionality and authority. And I’m sure, from somewhere in the chasms of my subconscious, that first reading of On the Road helped me conceive Haney on the Train.

We now regard OtR as the definitive novel for the Beat movement of the American 50s. Kerouac, if working in today’s market, may have done better to publish OtR under the heading of nonfiction (he may have sold more copies), but converting and expanding his experiences into the novel form allowed him to elaborate and condense, forget, remember, and forget to remember the capital-T Truths of his experiences. Though we can never know which details are true and which are fabricated in Kerouac’s aggrandizement, relaying these pilgrimages across the highways of America in the fiction genre allows him to conjure up a new hero for the 1950s counter-culture, Dean Morrearty, “who had the tremendous energy of a new kind of American saint” (39). Though reality can indeed be stranger than fiction, Kerouac’s fictionalization of reality serves to beatify his main character and elevate Dean to the proper proportions for an American folk hero—the unassailable journeyman clutching to his liberty and searching always for a home that doesn’t exist.

Early in the novel, after introducing the frenetic conversations between Carlo Marx (Allen Ginsberg) and Dean Morrearty (Neal Cassady, also the secret hero of Ginsberg’s definitive Beat poem “Howl,”), as a way to explain his irresistible urge to chase these characters around the country, our narrator Sal Paradise (Kerouac himself) writes, “And this was really the time that my whole road experience began, and the things that were to come are too fantastic not to tell” (9). But are his experiences really that fantastic? Sal recalls late-night romps through Denver and New York, run-ins with old friends like the wise, harrumphing Bull Lee in New Orleans and the French playboy Remi Boncceur in San Francisco, stories of hitchhiking and ride shares that comprise a how-to guide for getting back and forth across the country for cheap in the 1950s, and intense character analyses of Dean, the fast-talking, responsibility-shirking, car-thieving adulterer who rationalizes his transgressions under the wide umbrella of real American spirituality and an emerging Beat culture. Although Dean at times submits his intention to find his lost hobo father who’s out there riding the rails, the book’s real unity, its real energy, lies in the investigation of the beat, the disestablishmentarian, the down-casted figures who lie in opposition to accepted cultural norms. OtR’s through-story is the emergence of Beat culture itself.

There’s no fantabulism involved, no otherworldly confluence of coincidence, and the characters themselves do not come to incredible ends. If anything, their burning need to stay constantly on the move, beyond the reach of employment, obligation, and responsibility, leaves them battered and stranded, burnt out beatniks who embody the capital injustice of our consumer culture. To live outside of the system is to be cut off from the comforts—hot meals, warm showers, cozy beds and station wagons—the system bestows on its participants. By ignoring the carrot of American prosperity dangling in front of their noses, Sal and Dean forge a new American Dream in which sax players blow hip jazz, pretty girls play fast and loose, Eastern philosophies and Western idealisms boomerang from peoples’ mouths and powerful American automobiles belong not to the wealthy but to the best drivers, namely Dean.

The revised American Dream of OtR involves expending every ounce of energy in your mind and body to pursue every desire in the human soul, as evidenced when Sal writes of Dean and Carlo,

But then they danced down the streets like dingledoedies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me 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!’” (9).

This long, accelerating sentence shows the impulse of the novel—to follow through the underground those libertines whose passion and energy keep them always moving, running, burning. But it also shows the power and energy of Kerouac’s writing. Not only does he trail these eccentrics who fetishize constant movement like quixotic sharks, but he gets the material for his novels from his observations. He immerses himself in his subject, becoming Dean’s best friend while capitalizing on the character study, the protracted psychological examination, simultaneously taking place. The writing then reflects Dean on the page, told through the verbs of the above passage: dancing, shambling, burn, burn, burning and exploding like fireworks, spent and left impotent but having thrilled the crowd while they shone overhead. Kerouac’s prose comes alive by miming its subject and expanding Dean’s contagious energy into the trappings of the journey, onto the stage of the lively, undulating American expanse.

At a little more than 100 pages, Part One of OtR establishes the sainthood of Dean and the maniacal yet essential quality of this life on the road. Part Two, however, after Sal has written a different book and spent some time in school, and after not having seen Dean for a year or so, struggles to regain the same propulsion as those first 100 pages. The focus shifts to jazz and culture, and Dean scrambles to catch his intellect up with the changing scenes in all the cities he frequents. By Part Three, Dean seems weary, a nutcase unable to fit together the threads of his thinking rather than an irresistible hero. His philandering takes center stage and the characters who at one time, perhaps in their youthful naiveté, endured, supported, and even praised Dean’s impetuous antics, now give him the boot. After Dean’s fed-up wife Camille throws both Dean and Sal to the curb in San Francisco, Sal says, “Poor, poor Dean—the devil himself had never fallen farther; in idiocy, with infected thumb, surrounded by the battered suitcases of his motherless feverish life across America and back numberless times, an undone bird” (188-89). Indeed the Dean of Part Three embodies the inevitable outcome predicted by the fireworks metaphor established for him early on in the novel. He burned so hard and so fast that this downfall was imminent. He’s fallen, undone, mentally and physically attenuated with a sore thumb, an idiot’s mind, and no mother. To recapture that old elation he used to feel, Dean resorts to more womanizing, lying, and thieving. Turns out Beat is a gateway drug.

The two wash up in Denver, and Dean, a reject full of trouble, takes to stealing cars to get his kicks. He spends the night joyriding from car to car and by the morning he and Sal are back on the road, running from the law. They somehow convince a man to let Dean help him transport his Cadillac across the plains to Chicago. The man takes a plane, and Dean takes the wheel with Sal in the passenger seat and two boys riding along in the back. He lands the car in a ditch in Colorado and goes a life-endangering 110 through Nebraska where Sal writes of fearing for his life “across the groaning continent with that mad Ahab at the wheel” (234). Even with reckless Dean at the helm, the continent groaning at the negligence of the driver, Kerouac manages to lionize his hero and compare him to a great character of American literature. When Dean, adverse to slowing down except when absolutely necessary even though there’s nothing for him in Chicago worth speeding toward, comes upon “an almost impossible situation” (235), he takes the greatest risk of all, passing a line of cars across a one-lane bridge with a freight truck bearing down from the other direction. Sal says,

Dean came down on all this at 110 miles an hour and never hesitated. He passed the slow cars, swerved, and almost hit the left rail of the bridge, went head-on into the shadow of the unslowing truck, cut right sharply, just missed the truck’s left front wheel, almost hit the first slow car, pulled out to pass, and then had to cut back in line when another car came out from behind the truck to look, all in a matter of two seconds, flashing by and leaving nothing more than a cloud of dust instead of a horrible five-way crash with cars lurching in every direction and the great truck humping its back in the fatal red afternoon of Illinois with its dreaming fields (236).

Dean, our mad Ahab, risks his own life and the lives of his best friend and a bunch of strangers for some mythic impulse to own the American highway. On the road itself he pushes life to its limits, extending beyond common standards of decency, proving his invincibility and status as the best driver, best drifter, in the country. Once again by conquering this confluence of cars and trucks and luck and fate he pulls fire from the ashes—his own phoenix rising—but the colorful explosion now drips with red and images of horrendous carnage. Sal’s visions aren’t of some American saint but of the destruction Dean is capable of. Meanwhile, the fields of Illinois are lost in their dreams.

By the end of Part Three, Dean’s the most ragged, delusional, system-subverting hobo you’ve ever met in fact or fiction. He has kids and ex-wives all across the nation and no means of supporting them, but still Sal Paradise remains enamored. The novel can only end with Sal suffering for his attachment to Dean, his complicity in Dean’s actions, and his discipleship of Dean the perverse messiah. As long as the boys travel laterally, horizontally, east-west across the nation, skipping between San Francisco, Denver, Chicago, New Orleans, and New York, they will find refuge with friends, relatives, and within the womb of the ever-redeeming American motherland. But Dean’s impulse toward self destruction is totalizing. Part Four sees the pair heading south of the border into Mexico and leaving the auspices of America behind. They drink in the bars, smoke marijuana with the locals, sleep with the prostitutes, and push southward, sleeping exposed in the Mexican jungle. The mosquitoes sweep in overnight and conjoin with Sal, who writes, “For the first time in my life the weather was not something that touched me, that caressed me, froze or sweated me, but became me. The atmosphere and I became the same” (294). This act of adultery—Sal the American golden boy, mothered and caressed by the American night, cheating on his homeland and communing with a different nation, different latitude, different culture altogether—casts Sal into the same womanizing mold as Dean. Sal has broken the tacit code of OtR: to America be true.

However Sal, either because he lacks the moral impunity of Dean or because it simply is his fate, must atone for his sins against mother America and contracts a Mexican fever. Part Four ends with Sal “delirious and unconscious. [With d]ysentery,” watching “bold noble Dean … standing with his old broken trunk and looking down at me” (302). Impetuous Dean can wait no longer for Sal to recover and sets off to drive back north and “get on with his wives and woes,” our narrator tells us, ditching Sal whose fever is the price for chasing after his mad Ahab saint, following Dean below the realm of safety and into a sort of hellish underworld. Of course Dean, evading any consequence for his transgressions, retains his innocence from Sal’s vantage point for this great betrayal of his great friend. “Okay, old Dean,” Sal writes, “I’ll say nothing” (303).



If, on my trip across America, I run into some bohemian who tries to charm and woo me and take me with him on his downward spiral into oblivion, I’ll know how to spot it. Now that I’m older and have seen some things, I recognize that Dean Morrearty isn’t a true American hero, isn’t a character to emulate or aspire toward or even allow to enter my life. I would be livid if he put my life in danger like that on the highway. I would be furious if he got me in trouble with the law. I would not forgive his ditching me in Mexico with Mexican fever. I would not condone his womanizing and I would have to respectfully ask him to shut the hell up if he kept talking nonsense all day and night. No, Dean is not the hero I imagined him to be in middle school upon my first reading of OtR. I must’ve been enchanted by Kerouac’s impassioned writing and the great lengths he took to make a charming, redemptive hero out of Dean Morrearty, the least noble of characters.

But that’s what I will take from OtR—Kerouac’s impassioned writing. His ability to make the landscape come alive, to find a voice to tell his own American tale, to use the elements of each city that everybody knows—New York and its grime, New Orleans and its sunken marshes, Chicago and its bebop, Denver and its ring of mountains, San Francisco and it’s foggy bay—as sites for establishing the Beat perspective. Take an established setting and introduce your own cast of characters, your own vision of the world, your own Beat movement. OtR serves as a model of voice and energy, but damn, stop me if I fall enchanted with some reprobate like Dean Morrearty.

Kerouac establishes a certain feeling, a certain romanticism of the great American journey that must appeal to all of us. He writes:

I woke as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn’t know who I was—I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I’d never seen hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the crack of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn’t know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds (17).

This is something that, at 28 with two degrees I’m not sure how I’m going to use, I’d like to experience. I’m drawn to the absence, the lack of past and the uncertainty of future, and the reckoning made with such anonymity. In my own OtR revision, however, I’ll take responsibility for myself, my memories, my experiences. I’ll walk between the wild expanses of America and the already charted paths of my predecessors, balance an openness to explore and experiment with a self-imposed charge to make right, responsible choices along the way.

2 thoughts on “Revisiting On the Road

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