Tuesday, December 17, 2019

The Prose and Cons of a Kerouac Classic -- On the Road

I finally got around to reading On the Road, the Kerouac classic considered by some to be the most significant book about the Beat generation. Twenty or forty years ago I started Dharma Bums, Kerouac’s follow-up, but couldn’t get into it.

Since I myself have now been a publishing writer more than four decades, I can confess that I’ve always had a beef with this book. Why? Because I’d heard how he wrote the manuscript on a continuous reel of paper and a publisher actually accepted it. Kudos to Kerouac, I suppose. He did it his way and he slid by the gatekeepers of convention.

I know many talented writers who can’t get a publisher to look at their work without an agent and even then, if you sent in a manuscript rolled up like a toilet paper roll, I honestly doubt you’d be taken seriously.

Keep in mind, though, that this was the era of Jackson Pollock, so bad behavior was overlooked if you’d been tapped as a genius.

* * * *
My expectations were low for On the Road, despite Time magazine's declaration that this was one of the most important books of the 20th century. Others raved about it and endorsed it, including Dylan, so when I saw it at the library two weeks ago I checked it out.

Photo by Donald Giannatti via Unsplash
Reading On the Road brought two other road trip books to mind--Steinbeck's Travels with Charley and Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Trip. Both of these were written in the 1960s, with On the Road preceding them. On the Road (1957) is about the travels of Sal Paradise (the narrator) and friends, chiefly Dean Moriarty, from 1947-50. Steinbeck's story was a true account of a road trip in 1960 around the country with his poodle. Tom Wolfe's book is an example of what was labeled the New Journalism, a novel-like account of an LSD-infused magic bus trip with Ken Kesey and his band of Merry Pranksters. All three go cross-country and back, with Sal and Dean ultimately zagging South into Mexico.

Sidewalk nameplate outside City Lights Bookstore, San Francisco.
The three stories have this in common. They're well-written. On the other hand, I would not go as far as the New York Times went when they described Kerouac's novella, "the most beautifully executed, the clearest and the most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as 'beat,' and whose principal avatar he is."

The central character--almost a fixation for Kerouac--is Dean Moriarty. Wikipedia describes him as "much admired for his carefree attitude and sense of adventure, a free-spirited maverick eager to explore all kicks and an inspiration and catalyst for Sal's travels."

As I read the book--and what makes all this praise feel appalling to me--this hero is essentially a juvenile delinquent who never grew up, who lies, is perpetually looking to get laid, abusive to every female character he has a relationship with, wrecks vehicles, vandalizes, steals, betrays his friends and does whatever he pleases without consideration for the others in his life. Great hero he is not.

The big surprise for me was that Kerouac did produce some good sentences. I enjoyed the skill with which he produced some of the descriptive passages, and everywhere there is a vividness in the writing that makes the action come alive in the reader's mind. Throughout the story I was struck here and there by a turn of phrase, by some of the interesting ways he stated things.

When all is said and done, Kerouac's writing was prose. Dean Moriarty is a con. 

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Prose & (a) con. Well-played, Ed.