Let me start this review by stating that I did not finish this book. I could not finish this book. And I dealt with the guilt disciplined readers often feel when coming to the decision to set a book down without finishing it by asking several of my most trusted friends and family if I was justified in my decision. After receiving affirmation, I am determined to declare that I absolutely hated one of the most popular novels produced by the Beat generation.
On the Road has been recommended to me a few times, always by individuals who lived very carefree lives. Sometimes it was recommended to me by a group of individuals who I would consider to be fairly well-read, or well-read enough to operate under the pretense that they were well-read. Almost always, the people who recommended this book to me were people who I was acquainted with but who I never really connected with in terms of values or work ethic. As someone who believes that a person’s favorite book (or lack thereof) is very telling about their personality, I should not have been surprised that I quit reading On the Road halfway through.
Written by Jack Kerouac, the novel is known as a beat generation staple. Having read a handful of works by Beat writers (including Allen Ginsberg’s poetry which is hands down some of my all-time favorite work) I thought I would give On the Road a try. The novel is based on Kerouac’s traversing of America with his friends, and after getting about halfway through Part 2 I realized that it is really like the 1950’s version of our modern cultural strain of “Girls” writers: pointless. As all-American as it might be, I am kind of ashamed that this is a novel considered to be a part of the American literary canaan.
I think the best way to go about this is to address Kerouac’s characters directly and discuss how, exactly, they contribute to the novel:
Dean Moriarty: probably the most reputable character from this book. He is supposed to be the “hero” but is little more than an unmotivated, jive-talking, womanizing, con artist with no loyalties.
Carlo: a character who contributes very little by way of conversation. He is supposed to be a poet, but in the first two sections he does little more than serve as a Dean/Sal groupie.
Marylou: the most present female character in the book, she is Dean’s object of affection. She is conniving, blonde, and hardly has anything intelligent to say, but can frequently be found riding shotgun and letting Dean grope her.
Terry: the Mexican girl Sal has a fling with while in California. She meets him on a bus, brings him home to introduce him to her family and child, and Sal later finds that she is escaping her abusive boyfriend. The whole book should have been about her.
Sal: the narrator and central character. He is a mooch who survives off his Aunt, who lets him stay at her home for free when he is not traveling and sends him money while he is on the road. Has no real direction to his life and never disagrees with anything anyone says. In short, he is a damn fool.
Besides Terry, the only salvageable characters were Old Bull Lee and his wife Jane who were both junkies (heroine and benzadrine, respectively) but loved the hell out of each other. But see, this negative review comes down to the simple issue of what it is I think is worth reading a book about. I do not like to read about directionless, rebellious, twenty-somethings who are spoiled and wasting their talents and youth away. I like to read about people who have real struggles to deal with and people who have real goals that they are actively working to achieve (getting across country to California while working as little as possible is NOT a real goal); Real being used here in an entirely subjective manner.
Kerouac could have done a lot with this novel, like allowing us to see more into the lives of the people he met while traveling or showing some kind of personal growth in the narrator. But the narrator is so self-absorbed and lacking in depth that he hardly ever realizes how idiotic he sounds. Which could have been salvageable if the book had been a parody, but the whole time I was reading I couldn’t help laughing at the fact that I was supposed to take the narrator and his friends seriously.
Do not read this book if you are looking to get a good idea of what the Beat poets and writers stood for. Beat writing was about resistance to the norm; it highlighted and praised people who did not belong to the mainstream. Kerouac wouldn’t know what an act of resistance was if it smacked him across the face, and he sounds like a teenager who decides to join up with a group of outcasts because he is bored with his own life. The characters in the novel express a distaste for authority, specifically cops, but as a group of young white males (which the book is predominantly about) the only reason for them to dislike the police is because they are hooligans. Even their distaste for authority comes with arrogant, boyish dreams of shooting those who choose to make trouble for them on their journey. Even their views on authority come from a place where you know your lack of power is temporary and can be reversed when you decide to enter the world via a serious profession. Kerouac’s privilege winds its way into this novel at every turn, and I just had to stop reading before it suffocated me.
On a happier note, I am about six chapters into Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations and am enjoying it immensely. That review is soon to come.
Overall Score: 1. I would not recommend this book to anyone for any reason.