Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Lasting Influence of On the Road by Jack Kerouac

On the Road by Jack Kerouac
A petrol station somewhere on the road to Zaragoza, Spain. We trudged into the shop where motorists could pay for their petrol and purchase the usual selection of packaged food and drinks. Lost in the mists of time is the "how" of ending up there. I presume someone who had given us a lift dropped us off and wished us luck. The sun was already low in the sky, and we had long figured out that hitchhiking could be difficult at the best of times, but when the sun went down it was nearly impossible. With night coming on, we shamelessly badgered people getting in or out of their cars for a ride. We had had pretty good luck getting rides in Spain up to that point: as easily as anywhere else since we had first stuck our thumbs out on the outskirts of Amsterdam. But no one was willing to give us a lift at that bleak petrol station outside of Barcelona.

We decided to walk some more. Maybe we would find a better location for begging a ride, or maybe we would stumble on a cheap hotel where we could stay for the night. As we shuffled back to the road a car came to a halt next to us in the petrol station parking lot. We leaned in the open window and told the driver we were going to Zaragoza. Or, more accurately, we just said "Zaragoza." He motioned us to get in. We did, despite the strong odour of alcohol, and within minutes, we were out on the superhighway blasting towards our destination.

But the euphoria of a free ride quickly vanished as we realized how inebriated our driver was. He hammered the gas pedal to the floor and the speedometer flew past the 200 km/hour mark. He slashed by other cars as if they were standing still. His head started nodding to one side. We jolted him back to the present with loud warnings and exhortations to slow down. He was completely uncommunicative, though even if he had been speaking, we wouldn't have understood a word he said. He seemed to feed on our obvious fear. I started mentally saying goodbye to family members. I truly believed a deadly crash was imminent. Yet despite the impending horror, neither Hank nor I made any move to wrestle the steering wheel from the driver. It likely would have been futile and may have even had the opposite effect, sending us careening off the side of the road or into another car. And yet, as the nightmare played out, we stopped momentarily at a toll gate. Both Hank and I were experiencing the same emotions, but neither of us took that opportunity to get out of the car. The ordeal continued, but somehow we survived unscathed. It was the last time we hitchhiked together.

We spent some time in Zaragoza and then continued south by bus. We landed in the seaside resort town of Alicante. In our desperate attempts to save money and extend our travels, we slept on the beach for a few nights. A week or so earlier we had visited a bookshop in Barcelona and Hank had bought On the Road by Jack Kerouac. He had finished the book and now passed it on to me. I was blown away by what I read. It was as if all our experiences, emotions and observations of the time we had been travelling had been transposed onto the pages in front of me. The incredible highs and lows, the bizarre characters, the hitchhiking, the unhinged sense of freedom to go wherever we wanted, to leave any location in the rear-view mirror when the notion struck, to be the most irresponsible, out-of-control sons-of-bitches imaginable.

But after three months of travelling together, we were beginning to grate on each other's nerves. For the past couple of weeks I had been talking about striking off on my own, but Kerouac's words really solidified my desire to carve out a new travel experience. Would we have eventually gone our separate ways if I hadn't read On the Road? No doubt, but the lift-off from that incredible book lasted for months and probably contributed to the hell-bent mentality that gripped me as I said goodbye to Hank.

More than 20 years later—most of that time spent travelling or living in foreign countries—I decided it was time to revisit Kerouac's classic to see if it has stood the test of time. Would I still see On the Road the way I had years ago? Would Kerouac's words ring as true to me as they had more than two decades earlier?

On the Road opens in 1946. The war is over and Sal Paradise (Kerouac) is itching to hit the road and explore America. Letters from friends in Denver and San Francisco paint a picture of wild times and spiritual awakenings. Or at the very least, booze and women. The lure of adventure is strong for Sal, but almost as strong a motivating factor is Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady), a legend among Sal's friends who have met him or heard of his growing reputation. Sal first meets Dean in New York, and their friendship and Dean's manic, unrelenting approach to life comprise a big part of the rest of the book.

Moriarty had a hard-scrabble upbringing, did time in reform school and is an inveterate car thief. But he is also a budding intellectual who thrives among his better-educated middle class companions. He looks to them for advice on writing, philosophy, music and mysticism. Moriarty is alternately described as a two-bit hood who has somehow tapped into the zeitgeist and convinced many around him that he is some kind of mystic.

Moriarty's manic personality, his real-time, stream-of-consciousness observations, his lack of any regulating influences (like, say, consideration for others), his capacity for hammering booze and drugs down his throat and his desire to go, go, go, make him a perfect hero for the writers, deadbeats, and wanderers who populate On the Road. The insatiable desire to see new locations, meet new, gone characters and experience life to its fullest regardless of consequences tie in perfectly with the sense of freedom and movement that make On the Road so memorable. With the spectre of Moriarty looming large in his mind, Sal begins his journey: He hops a few buses which take him as far as Joliet, Illinois, and then he keeps moving any way he can—usually by hitchhiking.

I wondered if my memories of On the Road had been coloured by where and when I had first read it, and then polished to a nostalgic sheen in the intervening 20 years. But it wasn't long after I started re-reading the book that I realized its solid reputation is built on Kerouac's stark, evocative writing that so beautifully straddles the line between joyous freedom and profound loneliness. In this passage, Paradise is in a hotel room in Des Moine shortly after his first cross-country trip begins. It so perfectly captures the feelings that were permanently carved into my memories during all those years of travel:
I woke up 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 creak 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. I wasn't scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost. I was halfway across America, at the dividing line between the East of my youth and the West of my future, and maybe that's why it happened right there and then, that strange red afternoon.
Paradise's first destination is Denver, where he hooks up with numerous friends and once again seeks out the elusive and mysterious Dean Moriarty. But their time together is fleeting and Paradise continues on to California. He briefly works as a security guard in an army barracks, which, not surprisingly, doesn't turn out too well. And then Paradise is on the move again. Kerouac is often at his poetic best during arrivals and departures or when he's blazing down the road and enjoying the moment:
The sun goes down long and red. All the magic names of the valley unrolled—Manteca, Madera, all the rest. Soon it got dusk, a grapy dusk, a purple dusk over tangerine groves and long melon fields; the sun the color of pressed grapes, slashed with burgundy red, the fields the color of love and Spanish mysteries. I stuck my head out the window and took deep breaths of the fragrant air. It was the most beautiful of all moments.
He continues down into southern California where he hooks up with a young Mexican woman. More antics, adventures, the occasional bout of paranoia, all in service of new tales to tell, new experiences, new emotions. And then, as it always does in every locale, it all falls apart. Paradise takes buses and rides from strangers and heads back east to the comfort of his aunt's house in New Jersey. Together with the stretches of sweet, aching desolation distilled into its purest essence, there is also plenty of humour:
I might have gotten a ride with an affluent fatman who'd say "Let's stop at this restaurant and have some pork chops and beans." No, I had to get a ride that morning with a maniac who believed in controlled starvation for the sake of health.
A year later Moriarty hooks up with Paradise again, this time at the home of Sal's brother in Virginia. Moriarty has a car now and they head to New York, then to Chicago, down to New Orleans, where they stay with Old Bull Lee (William Burroughs), through Texas, New Mexico and Arizona and finally again to San Francisco. Inevitably, things go haywire again and Sal heads back east alone. But through it all, Sal and Dean have formed some kind of close bond, and Paradise often refers to Dean as his brother. You wouldn't have to stretch too far to infer an even more intimate relationship between the two (those inferences made much easier with the amount written by various observers and others who were part of the mix at the time).

As the novel winds down, Paradise and Moriarty reconnect a few years later and make their long-talked-about journey to a foreign country. Not to Europe as they had long planned, but south to Mexico. This final journey together has a more world-weary, slightly darker tone, although the appetite for hedonistic abandon is still there. The alcohol, drugs and prostitutes leave Sal laid out with a fever, writhing in pain, and Dean chooses that moment to say goodbye:
"All that again, good buddy. Gotta get back to my life. Wish I could stay with you. Pray I can come back." I grabbed the cramps in my belly and groaned. When I looked up again bold noble Dean was standing with his old broken trunk and looking down at me. I didn't know who he was any more, and he knew this and sympathized, and pulled the blanket over my shoulders. "Yes, yes, yes, I've got to go now.
Old fever Sal, good-by." And he was gone. Twelve hours later in my sorrowful fever I finally came to understand that he was gone. By that time he was driving back alone through those banana mountains, this time at night.
I enjoyed reading On the Road as much or more this time around. During the intervening 20 years, I spent more time travelling and living abroad. I also read other novels by Kerouac—though in my opinion, nothing else he wrote comes close to On the Road (probably a non-hipster opinion there—How could the most widely read novel of a gee-nee-us like Kerouac be his best? Say it ain't so...). However, some things jumped out at me that I didn't pay much attention to the first time.

First, the sheer number of people fucked over by the antics of Paradise, Moriarty and the other stand-up individuals who appear throughout the book. Child abandonment, thieving, the odd explosion of violence, and numerous other crimes and misdemeanors. It's basically an orgy of non-stop self-serving behaviour. Sadly, it rings true to many of my experiences while travelling. Something about knowing you are leaving a country next week spurs you on to more shameless acts of selfishness. This is not to suggest that bad behaviour is only perpetrated by feckless travellers. But there is a certain kind of glee that anything done in pursuit of the next high, natural or otherwise, trumps any kind of consideration for quaint, old-fashioned notions like common decency. The fact that Kerouac includes so many references to people cast aside in the pursuit of pleasure is one sign of authenticity, though I'm betting he was less truthful about his own bad behaviour than that of others he describes in the book.

Something else I noticed during my second reading: some of Kerouac's observations are mind-blowingly naïve. Perhaps the notion was new at the time that only the marginalized, the outcasts, or the minorities are genuine and should engender a kind of religious awe, but now it's a sad cliché. Maybe the desperate need to break away from establishment beliefs and morals was part of that kind of thinking. And maybe those first, fresh-eyed interactions with people and places that were previously off limits do result in a sort of joyous naïveté and accompanying observations. Come to think of it, I did all those things too, and had a kind of simplistic take on those experiences that to me seemed so original and daring at the time. And sweet mother of fuck, I've just talked myself out of the initial criticism. Still, anyone who has lived in a third-world country will cringe as they read some of Kerouac's musings on the poor people of Mexico. Of course, Kerouac was still very young at the time of those observations, and anyway, a more nuanced, sneering nihilism would likely have spoiled the effect.

Although On the Road may be classified as a novel, it's no secret that it's really a thinly disguised autobiography, as are most of Kerouac's books. Which means that there are not the same opportunities for presenting conflict as in purely fictional tales. But there's still plenty of conflict in On the Road. Often it comes in the form of the previously mentioned instances when people are parting company and disputes remain unresolved (or the disputes sparked the departures, cloaked in the guise of "time to move on"). Also, within Kerouac's narration, there is more than a little internal conflict. Regardless of how many new experiences you have, that kind of lifestyle over an extended period of time, together with sacrificing a more stable situation, can take its toll.

Is the lifestyle worth it? For Kerouac and other artists who lived at that time, the excesses apparently helped them achieve a state of mind that allowed them to create art. But many of them, including both Kerouac and Cassady, would pay the ultimate price. Cassady died at 41 after a lifetime of drug abuse topped off with one final epic, monumental session of ingesting all manner of substances, before striding out into the night, never to be seen alive again. It was somehow symbolic and appropriate that he was found dead next to a railroad line, on the move and seeking out new experiences until the very end. Kerouac died of health problems brought on by alcoholism at the age of 47, and by all accounts his last years were not happy ones.

I often reminisce about my own long-ago days of travel and adventure, and while I might never get the chance to relive them, they will be a life-long source of inspiration and comfort. In a similar way, On the Road will always be an important book to me—for the memory of reading it the first time and how it affected me, and for the writing itself, which so perfectly captures the emotions and mindset of that particular kind of carefree, come-what-may travel experience.

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