Rethinking Everything – On the Road

by Mark Hahn


Whenever someone mentions On the Road, the novel by Jack Kerouac, I inevitably end up shooting off my mouth about how much I hate Kerouac and his novel. But when it comes down to it, I recently realized that I couldn’t really remember much of the novel or his writing. On the Road had been hangover reading for me a long time ago. I read the book while on a visit to New York City in my early twenties — I am now sober and in my 50’s.

Whatever critical thought I had given the novel at the time was gone and only remnants of scattered drunken emotions were left. At the time, many of my friends took my rejection of the book as something akin to attacking their religion — this hasn’t exactly changed. On the Road is seen by many as a treatise on freedom and how to shake off society’s oppression of your spirit. I didn’t buy it then and I don’t buy it now.

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While preparing to leave on a business trip to Sacramento, I stumbled onto a PDF copy of On the Road on the webs and downloaded it to my little smartphone. I hadn’t planned on doing so, but given that my business trips to Sacramento — like most business trips — are desperately bleak events, I figured, this would be a perfect occasion emotionally for re-examining it.

Many scholars claim that it is unfair to dislike Kerouac’s writing based on how easily it is to dislike him as a person, but I disagree. In On the Road, it is impossible to separate Kerouac the writer and Kerouac the character Sal Paradise. They both share the same unlikable voice — the voice that Kerouac wants you to hear as him — the voice of his alter ego, the person he tries so hard to be. I do recognize that reading a novel isn’t about making a friend, but about what the novel can bring to your life. Other than still disliking Kerouac the person, I have found something new in his novel that I had missed the first time through.

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For anyone who hasn’t read On the Road, it’s primarily an autobiographical recounting of a period in Kerouac’s young life when he traveled back and forth between one side of the country to the other in search of something. He did this with some of the most famous Beat personalities of the time — Allen Ginsberg (Carlo Marx), William Burroughs (Old Bull Lee), Herbert Huncke (Elmer Hassel) and Neal Cassady (Dean Moriarty), just to mention a few. Kerouac’s characters were all based on his friends. The main character in the book, is of course, Kerouac himself — given the name Sal Paradise. I will refer to the characters in as they are named in the novel from here on, recognizing that there is no difference between them as characters or as actual personalities.

The original (scroll) version of the novel — where the names have not been changed — opens with the line, “I met Neal not long after my father died.” This was changed to, “I met Dean not long after my wife and I had split up.” From the very beginning, this sets a completely different tone to the novel and establishes a different motivation for Kerouac’s mission of finding himself on the road. Perhaps it provides a hint as to why Sal is so helplessly attracted to Dean in the first place. A man losing his father is a deeply sad and humbling event. A man breaking up with his wife can be seen as an act of finding his freedom. A man cannot outrun the feelings he has for his father — there is no second chance at fixing your relationship with a dead father. He will carry this to his own death. When a man leaves a woman, there is always the possibility that there will be another woman who can bring him so much love that it wipes away the pain left from the last.

While Kerouac writes extensively about Dean’s father and his feelings for him, he avoids any mention of his own father or his own feelings of loss in the book. Dean and Kerouac shared the pain of having been deserted by their alcoholic fathers in different ways. The main difference is that Kerouac’s dad was dead and Cassady’s was still alive. Much of the novel is devoted to Dean’s attempt to find his father — in the gutter or getting out of jail — and the dreams of how he can make everything right between the two of them. Dean held out the hope that he could find resolution and absolution from his disastrous childhood.

At one point, Dean goes back to Denver to find his father, but is instead forced by his family to sign legal papers that effectively annulled all further connections between them. He and Sal go on a wild drinking spree in an attempt to distance themselves from the pain. Dean goes on a car theft spree, stealing  one car after another. This is his first mania when things go wrong — stealing cars. The second is having sex with as many women as possible. There is no point to his endless joy rides, only his attempts to escape his pain and loneliness while finding excitement in the danger. This seems to be one of Kerouac’s main attractions to Dean, the pointlessness of his action, his love of senseless risk taking and his ability to escape everything that is painful to him with no regard to anyone or anything. Above all else, Kerouac wants to escape his own pain and loneliness.

But Sal refuses to confront or acknowledge his pain. He attempts to leave everything behind, free himself of the encumberances of social and personal emotional attachments and transfer his own feelings to Dean. But with his own pain bound so tightly inside him, Kerouac doesn’t have a chance to free himself. He carries his problems along with him everywhere he goes. They lay in his bed every night. They are more real than any woman that he is ever with.

Sal tries to find meaning in being the only true friend to Dean. He tries to make this friendship matter — to mean something — but in his heart, Sal knows that Dean doesn’t care about him. Setting himself up with a self-fulfilling prophecy where he will be deserted again, Sal knows he will be deserted in the end. Still, Sal tries to find beauty in this friendship — in his noble selfishness. Sal and Dean share the camaraderie of drunks. The only true relation for each is their individual relationships to the bottle and not to each other. They share a mistress. They share a pain. They share loneliness. Together.

As much as Sal tries to act otherwise, he is as trapped by his need to assign meaning to things in his life. He treats himself badly, he treats the women in his life badly, he tries to pretend he doesn’t care, but he is never able to get there. The freedom that people hope to find in On the Road is never found. The joy of abandoning oneself to the pursuit of pleasure leads only to mechanical actions, as hollow as the actions of rigid social/moral conformity.

The only convincingly glimpse of sincere happiness and love you get in this novel is between Sal and his short term Mexican girlfriend — Terry — who he met on a bus in California.

“The prettiest girl I had ever seen,” recalls Sal.

At one point, while the two are together in LA, Kerouac writes:

“We went into a motel court and bought a comfortable little suite for about four dollars — shower, bath towels, wall radio, and all. We held each other tight. We had long serious talks and took baths and discussed things with the light on and then with the light off. Something was being proved, I was convincing her of something, which she accepted, and we concluded the pact in the dark, breathless, then pleased, like little lambs.”

Somehow, the two of them end up caring about each other. They feel each others loneliness and want to alleviate it. They want to make the other feel good — at least while together — when neither had anyone else.

Later, Sal briefly ponders why he is leaving her when she has offered him something that made him truly happy — even if it is just their mutual companionship. Nowhere else does Kerouac let down his guard like this or treat anyone else with such sincerity. Their short romance had a pure innocence and lack of circumspection. It’s too bad that he couldn’t allow himself to stay. Sal was only with Terry fifteen days before he leaves, but they shared something very human and very real. When he leaves, he knows he will never see her again. He knows he is making a big mistake. Then he says goodbye, driven on by his need to run away from himself.

Kris Kristofferson wrote, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose, nothin’ ain’t worth nothin’ but it’s free,” in Me and Bobby McGee. This one line is more effective than the whole of On the Road in exploring concept of freedom. Is freedom really just not caring about anything? Is freedom more valuable than happiness? Why was Sal happiest when he was with Terry — caring not only for her, but for her child? What is Sal really searching for? What is he trying to prove?

On a bus ride to Detroit, while  Dean sleeps, Sal talks with a young “country girl,” and tries to get her to say what she wants out of life. Sal wanted her to talk about her unexplored sexual desires. He wanted her tell him that it all came down to sex. Kerouac wanted everything to come down to sex, even though his casual fucks never make him feel free, never makes him happy and never really even seem enjoyable to him. Nothing makes him feel like he felt with Terry for a brief moment when he let himself care for her.

If there was any doubt what his brand of freedom brings, Sal only had to look over in the bus at the sleeping Dean — sleeping alone. Dean had fucked more woman than anyone else he knew, yet there was a lone. He even ended up leaving all his children behind — never to know them. Like Sal, Dean was running away from everything good in his scramble to get away from his pain.

If Kerouac and Cassady looked out into the darkness through the bus windows and saw their reflections, they would have seen how much they looked alike. Many times during Sal’s travels, he steps in to try to straighten out some bit of trouble that Dean had gotten himself into by claiming that he was Dean’s brother and would take care of him. Perhaps Sal thought that if he could fix Dean’s pain that his own would be fixed along the way. Ultimately, neither slowed down enough to let their pain out — they continued to run through life, with their pain trapped in their guts like a giant wad of rotten chewing gum.

The novel should have ended at page 147 with the line, “Dean took out other pictures [from their travels]. I realized these were all the snapshots which our children would look at someday with wonder, thinking their parents had lived smooth, well-ordered, stabilized-within-the-photo lives and got up in the morning to walk proudly on the sidewalks of life, never dreaming the raggedy madness and riot of our actual lives, our actual night, the hell of it, the senseless nightmare road. All of it inside endless and beginningless emptiness. Pitiful forms of ignorance,” but he didn’t.

Near the end of the novel, when they arrive in San Antonio, Sal devotes just one line to a thought of Terry. Somewhere in his heart, he is acknowledging that in all his travels, that the time with Terry was the only time he experienced sincere emotions. It was the only time happiness was part of his actions. Everything else was useless motion — running away while simultaneously attempting to chase a dream that he knew didn’t exist. Everything he did was a delusion — an attempt to create a public identity where he could hide from the pain and insecurity he felt in his real self.

When Sal and Dean get to Mexico — the end of the road that they had been dreaming of — they go into a whorehouse where Sal gets Dean the girls he promised him. They act like kings, dancing, drinking while stoned on good weed. Dean and Stan both go off to do young teenage girls. Sal wants a 16 year old black girl bad, but he can’t do it. His guilt is too much for him. His search for thoughtless freedom has failed. We find that he does have a heart after all — no matter how tainted it may be. Sal cannot escape his morals and guilt no matter how he tries. In the end he goes off with a 30 year old whore and “makes the bed bounce for a half hour.” No joy, no lust, only going through the motions. In the end, the whole pointless trip was just going through the motions — going through the motions of trying to be free, but not being free at all.

When Kerouac realized he didn’t know how to end the novel — or this chapter of his life — he buckles down. He realizes how trapped he is. He realizes that there is nothing left to do but marry himself off. He recognized that his search for freedom was completely misguided. Even on his own terms, he had failed. He married Laura after knowing her no longer than he had known Terry.

All he says about their meeting and courtship is, “I went up and there she was, the girl with the pure and innocent dear eyes that I had always searched for and for so long. We agreed to love each other madly.” That’s it!

There is never a hint of love or passion between them. They consummate their union by an agreement. She the grabbed standin for the one he thought he was supposed to be searching for. In real life, the two only remained together for a matter of months, though Kerouac got her pregnant before he left. In this regard, he lived up to the legacy of Dean, the idol he worshiped — always walking away from his human responsibilities.

When Kerouac broke up with Joan Haverty, the real life “Laura,” he said of her, “I didn’t like her. She didn’t like any of my friends. My friends didn’t like her. But she was beautiful. I married her because she was beautiful.” Where is the joy or freedom in this relationship?

As an endnote, Jack Kerouac denied the paternity of his only daughter and ended up living as an invalid alcoholic with his third wife Stella and his brutally abusive and controlling alcoholic mother. He died from complications of cirrhosis of the liver — brought on by his alcoholism. This was the true end of the road for Jack Kerouac.

* * *

While it was a random sequence of google clicks that brought me back to On the Road, the recent release of the new film with the same name — directed by Walter Salles (Motorcycle Diaries) — will no doubt make the novel suddenly relevant for a large new audience. It’s hard to imagine the complexities and levels of sadness in this novel being successfully brought to life in this movie, but good or bad it is a movie that I’ll want to watch. My guess is that Kerouac will become the Beat God in this film that all his fans want him to be anyway, but the movies hasn’t come to my town yet, so I’ll have to wait and see it like everyone else.

Rethinking everything is always good, even when you end up at the same place. Rereading On the Road has made me see something in the novel that I missed the first time — all the pain that Kerouac struggled with. The strength of the novel comes from what Kerouac tries not to tell us. At its heart, it is a gut wrenching  tragedy.

In the end of the novel, we find what we should have known all along. At the end of the road, we find ourselves. In terms of the book, I would rather find myself in the arms of a tender sexy Mexican girlfriend — looking into her dark almond eyes and kissing her — than ending up fucking some Mexican whore on a dirty mattress in a Mexican whorehouse who disgusted me almost as much as I disgusted myself for being there. Poor Jack destroyed every chance he had to find beauty, love and happiness. He only got the whore, never facing the pain he held inside. When he tried to drowned it with quarts of Johnny Walker Red, it killed him — taking the pain with him.

He left us a novel.