Maternity leave has given me more time to read, so I’ve picked up a couple of Big Read books. Neither of them are #90 On the Road by Jack Kerouac, but I realised I never posted the review I wrote of that book. Here it is, almost exactly a year late.
On the Road on the rails
I’ve just finished On the Road, which I’ve read, appropriately enough, while riding the rails on a long train journey from Nha Trang to Ho Chi Minh City. On the Road is the tale of a wandering life as the main character, Sal, travels fairly aimlessly around the USA, in the company of other drifters. It’s fairly well understood that the book is broadly autobiographical fiction.
In our epic trip across and around the USA this summer we visited quite a lot of the places Sal goes to, including San Francisco, LA, San Antonio and a couple other places I don’t this moment recall.
Booze and bad parenting
The book does not do it for me. It’s written on a high, in a lovely drugged-out haze, and as you go through you can see all the damage that these mad bad men are doing as they go. There’s a scene where Sal and Dean punch a door together, and Sal breaks a bone in his hand. He’s so drunk he doesn’t notice until the morning. That’s what the book is. Throughout the book, people get married, have kids, cart these kids around to squats and tents, don’t feed them much and take a lot of drugs in front of them. The stated assumption is that the kids don’t mind. What Kerouac can’t seem to see is that his generation, mourning their own lost fathers, are the missing and deadbeat dads of tomorrow. Of today, in fact, as even as they look for their own lost paternal role models they are squandering the chance to provide what they’ve lost for their own kids.
The book is very much a man’s story and women only play a peripheral role in it. Each of the main characters gets entangled with various women over the course of the book. It’s written as entanglement, women making demands and needing to be managed, but it’s easy to read as a con. It’s as though they’re mountain climbers. The man is leading, and if he cuts the rope that binds the group, he can walk on more easily. The woman is more firmly tethered to the children, and is well aware that if he goes the rest of the party is likely to go over the cliff. Kerouac’s characters cut the rope without, it seems, realizing they’re doing any such thing at all.
The wit of wine
Sal (and Kerouac) find a romantic charm in the ravings of drunks and potheads. I really cannot be bothered. I feel like I’ve met these men, and I don’t respect them. They look very different when you’re one of their targets (or not a target, being excluded due to age or lack of beauty or…) than when you’re one of their buddies. As a buddy, they’re mad fun. They keep you out late. You drink too much, then go to work in the morning hungover and happy.
On the other side of the fence, you can see the lies. You can see how they’ll say anything, do anything to get a girl they fancy into bed – do anything, almost, apart from give her respect. Respect, as Aretha Franklin pointed out, is important.
And that’s without getting started on his comments about 9, 11, 13 and 15 year old girls, which need their own content warning, frankly.
Why read it then?
There are two strengths to the book, in my mind. First, it rips apart the staid and sober notion of the 1940s was only a time of war related privations and jitterbugging parties. There are no poodle skirts and duck tail hair cuts. The guys are roving the USA broke, ragged, drunk and stoned; there is a lot of pot in this book.
Second, Kerouac does have an engaging, intense, frantic way of describing the places characters go. It’s like a drunken celebration, where someone is telling you that he’s so, so happy that he got a great job, and he only had a couple of drinks, and did he mention that he’s having a baby soon, too, so it’s perfect timing and the sky is so beautiful tonight and birds always sing louder in summer and…
Don’t travel to the beat of this drum
This is clearly a book that launched a thousand trips, and that’s both understandable and a crying shame. It’s the worst book in the world to try to travel to. It describes times and places that only existed – if they existed at all – for a few people for a few moments. And even if you could manage to stomach all the drugs and alcohol, and went a year later (or had a time machine and went the same year) you’d never capture quite the same spirit.
The book skips over the weeks and months of working quietly and making money (although they are there, if you look), creating a picture of an endless party that you just can’t match in real life, although thousands have wrecked Ibiza trying… In a way, this is the Pinterest problem 60 years early: a view of a life that’s so carefully edited reality can only disappoint. There’s also a clear line of descent from here to The Beach, both in a literary sense and in terms of travel choices. A bit of backpacker history while we’re on the go, it’s interesting but distasteful at the same time.