Monday, June 20, 2011

"On the Road" by Jack Kerouac

Summary: Kerouac's classic semi-autobiographical tale of traveling the open road with friends.

Musings: I'm so glad I chose to read On the Road via audiobook.  The narrator, Will Patton, does a perfect job of capturing the characters' voices and that essential "beat generation" tone associated with Kerouac and his friends.  The protagonist, Sal (i.e. Kerouac), has an easy-going but enthusiastic drawl.  He's never a leader in the book, but he's always up for whatever adventure is thrown at him.  The real star of the novel (and where Patton's skill shines) is Sal's friend Dean Moriarty, a "mad" man who says "Yes!" to everything and leaves women (and children) alone in his wake.  Through Patton, Dean's insane desire to capture and experience all that life has to offer is portrayed through a rushed, breathless exuberance.

Dean's without a doubt a polarizing figure. To most people, including myself, Dean is infuriating.  He does what he wants with little concern about others, and though his frenzy is somewhat endearing early on, it becomes more and more concerning as multiple wives and children get left behind for whatever adventure he desires.  Yet there's something earnest and true in Dean, and his freedom from responsibility is infectious.  It's not surprising that people like Sal drop everything to follow him.

In many ways On the Road is a love story with America itself, as Sal's repeated trips east and west (and, in the last part of the book, south to Mexico) allow him to experience a broad swath of the country and its people.  Based on Kerouac's experiences in the '40s, Sal's journey is one where hitchhiking is easy, the women are beautiful, alcohol is cheap, and money (though there's never much of it) always seems to work out.  For this reason, the book does feel so essentially American in its tone.  In it, I saw the desire in generations of young adults to find adventure, independence, eternal youth, and life's meaning through traveling.  Nowadays college students and grads backpack through Europe, but the yearning is the same.

So while typically I'm cynical of 20-somethings who want to "find themselves," I found it hard to be cynical about Kerouac's novel (well, okay, a bit cynical when he idealizes Mexico and its 15-year-old prostitutes).  He's so sincere in his desire to experience and his prose is so lyrical that even I--a mature, stable adult if ever there was one--felt moved.

I can see why On the Road is such a classic and has enticed so many people to explore and look beyond the banality of "responsible" life.

***This book qualifies for the Back to the Classics Challenge (20th century classic category).

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