Staff Pick: On The Road

On the Road

by Jack Kerouac

Penguin Books

If there is a literary prescription for surviving adolescence in America, it would be reading Huckleberry Finn (by age 13), The Catcher in the Rye (16), and Jack Kerouac's On the Road (21). Sadly in retrospect, I didn't read the bible of the beat generation until I was 38. And meeting Dean Moriarty after you've become a parent is a bit like waiting till you're legal to taste whiskey for the first time. (What Dean and I could have done together!)

The cross-country tales, as compiled and remembered by Kerouac's narrator (Sal Paradise), are a scattered exploration. Geographical, chemical, behavioral, and existential exploration. What makes the novel so definitive and still such a cultural milestone a half-century after it was first published is how fun it is to read. Among the traits that separate humans from our four-legged friends is an urge — a need, maybe – to explore the world before us. This house, this neighborhood, this town, state, country . . . it's not enough. And when Dean — the personification of unbridled enthusiasm, his surname barely an appendage to his identity — is in charge of your itinerary, the exploring becomes less a part of living and more the very act of living.

Dean is a drunk. He's a car-thief and a ladies man. An exhibitionist. The last man you'd want your daughter to be dating. But the ironic punchline is that Dean is quite possibly the first you'd want escorting your daughter across the country. Adventure is one thing, but with the right scout to observe the priceless little bumps on the highway that make the road worth driving . . . well, bliss. Sal describes Dean's soul as "wrapped up in a fast car, a coast to reach, and a woman at the end of the road." For our narrator, Dean is a paragon of freedom, if not fidelity. "In myriad pricklings of heavenly radiation I had to struggle to see Dean's figure, and he looked like God."

While Memphis gets a brief mention, Kerouac's crew bounces largely between New York, Denver, San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Detroit, and even Mexico. The story is never so much about location, though, or destination, where Sal and Dean have been, or where they may be going. It's merely that they are going. "We all realized we were leaving confusion and nonsense behind and performing our one and noble function of the time, move!" Wherever you may be, Kerouac emphasizes, the world is a bigger place. And there's always more to see, if you're willing to look.

Kerouac's reputation as spokesman (messiah?) of the beat generation both helps and hurts a twenty-first-century reading of On the Road. A reader younger than 50 — one who knows of Kerouac and his reputation — might turn each page with a patronizing, "Oh, that Jack . . . ." But if that reader can manage to bridge the temporal divide between setting and interpretation — isn't that what readers are assigned by every author? — the meanderings of Sal, Dean, Bull Lee, Marylou, Camille, and Alfred the handicapped hitchhiker are a thoroughly welcome escape. A nice trip, you might say.

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