Book #106: On the Road (1957)

9780141182674author: Jack Kerouac
language: English and a few lines of Spanish
length: 281 pages
finished on: 5 July 2016

I was moderately impressed with some of the other Beat Generation works that I’ve consumed over the past couple of years (such as The Wild Boys or the biopic Kill Your Darlings), and picked this book up thinking it might have some LGBT content (I’ve been pretty single-minded about that recently, sorry to my detractors and all that). It’s not so unreasonable – after all, that seems to be most of what Kerouac’s contemporaries (Burroughs and Ginsberg, anyway) wrote about, and the cover suggests something between the two men on the cover, but actually it’s not like that. There is subtext, to be sure, but that’s not what I’m looking for.

I eschewed the introduction, which explained in detail which characters equalled which real-life people, but it might have been more interesting to read the book and understand who he was talking about at any one time. It also might have prepared me for the book’s unique style.

On the Road is fairly transparently autobiographical – it seems that the only way Kerouac would get through a whole novel was if he didn’t have to invent the story – and is, also obviously, a quintessential road novel. Its story consists of the main character Sal, representing Kerouac, travelling across America multiple times with his best friend Dean, representing Neal Cassady.

The book is written in stream-of-consciousness style – more accurately, Kerouac was basically writing without stopping to collect his thoughts, as a kind of experiment to push the boundaries of fiction. He wrote the whole thing in the space of a couple of days, so it is often repetitive, or introduces story points without properly developing them. I often also didn’t feel a proper sense of continuity or development in the story – the characters often return to the same conceptual space. It’s also difficult to follow at times, because characters or new obstacles for the main characters seem to spring from nowhere, and consequences aren’t always followed up.

The book’s main strength, then, is in documenting an era – it is very evocative and goes into the gritty underbelly of the post-war United States, which few other books do. For me I noticed the prices being ten times what they should be – $5 is $50 in today’s money, for instance. Small things like that, or (weirdly) how racist the language would be considered today – those things firmly root it in a bygone era.

So I recommend it for that, and the final sequence in Mexico – but I’m not sure I’d recommend it overall. I didn’t really like the unorganized style much.


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