Wednesday, September 19, 2007
The Non-Oprah Book Club: On the Road
There's been quite a lot written about Kerouac's iconic book, On the Road, over the past few weeks in commemoration of the novel's 50th anniversary; all of it proclaiming its importance in American literature, and I have to agree that the novel is great; but will it continue as such a noted piece of work? I don't think it will. At 50, the novel is really starting to show its age. The revolutionary stream of conscious prose seems quite ordinary today, its influence dissipated so much into future works of fiction that it no longer holds its original power for modern readers. As those who first related to the novel grow older and die, the effect of the novel seems to age along with them. The Beat Generation after World War II is going the way of the Lost Generation of World War I. Does Fitzgerald's This Side of Paradise or Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises hold their immediate impact? Not really. Both are powerful books, but reaction to these books are related more to the story, prose and characters than to their importance as societal commentary.
Having said that, On the Road is, as I said above, a great novel filled with wonderfully memorable characters, especially the protagonist's constant companion on his various journeys, Dean Moriarty, who is based on Kerouac's real life friend, Neal Cassady.
Cassady, forever attached as one of the pillars of the Beat Generation, would also become a member of Timothy Leary's Merry Pranksters and the hippie generation. But the Cassady connection is not the only real life similarities in On the Road as the entire book in just a slightly fictionalized memoir with people's names changed. One of the more interesting characters for me is Old Bull Lee, Kerouac's alias for William S. Burroughs.
If you've never read On the Road, or know anything about it, there really isn't much to tell about the plot as there really isn't one. Basically we follow Kerouac's alter-ego, Sal Paradise, as he travels back and forth across the United States over the course of a few years. If you're looking for a straight forward plot, then look elsewhere. The best way to enjoy On the Road is just go along for the ride.
The original scroll on which Kerouac wrote the first draft is on display at the Boott Cotton Mills Museum in Lowell, Massachusetts through the first week in October. Part of me wants to go see it, but then again, do I really want to travel to see a roll of paper? Not very Kerouac of me, I know, but I'm part of the Generation X Slacker culture.