My rating: 3 of 5 stars
You will say, “You should have read this book when you were 16!” Reader, I wouldn’t have liked it. My spell with the counterculture was tantalizing but brief, consisting mainly of Grant Morrison comics and a small short-lived occult shop on Pittsburgh’s South Side (the Eye of Horus!); by my priggish late teens, I was into Shakespeare and Joyce and would have found, or did find without even reading it, On the Road to be a spate of slovenly raving. Much better to read it now, nel mezzo del cammin, when I can hope to achieve artistic appreciation via historical awareness.
And I surprise myself by in fact appreciating, even liking, On the Road. The novel, a thinly fictionalized memoir, narrates about four years in the life of Sal Paradise, a young veteran, divorcee, and writer who takes to the eponymous road alongside “the sordid hipsters of America, a new beat generation that I was slowly joining.” While the educated Paradise is the novel’s narrator, its hero is Dean Moriarty, “a new kind of American saint,” a self-taught orphan from the west who spent much of his early life in prison and lives his adulthood as a blur of unfocused excitement and broken commitments. A kind of Beat Gatsby, Dean Moriarty is the tragic hero of an America that will not allow a man to bounce as high as he thinks he can.
On the Road is picaresque and episodic, structured around four separate road trips; in its loose organization and one-thing-after-another style, it reminds me of early novels like those of Defoe. Just as Defoe wrote of upstarts and adventurers—Robinson Crusoe and Moll Flanders—who inaugurate an age of the individual and of bourgeois civilization, Kerouac tells us what happens two centuries on, when that culture’s burnouts and dropouts take to the road again, this time not to rise in commercial society but to flee its trappings and confinements.
But Kerouac’s muse does not hail from the age of reason; our author calls instead on the Transcendentalist or (forgive me) Whitmaniacal tradition of American visionary writing, as well as modernist stream-of-consciousness. Instead of describing the world objectively—an aesthetic he mocks through a character besotted with the comparatively staid Hemingway, idol of a previous generation—he seeks to express tedium, fear, rapture, delirium, and ecstasy from the inside. Such conscious pursuit of unconsciousness, though, renders unpersuasive the old myth of On the Road as an infinite scroll typed in a trance in some back seat on a benny bender. I, or my priggish inner 16-year-old, am surprised and impressed by the control of Kerouac’s prose performance, from the perfectly sensible paragraph design to the complex layering of imagery and irony. I should have read it in my teens only to have my own arrogance punctured: On the Road is a work of commendable artistry.
Kerouac’s artistry is not merely technical but extends as well to thematic level. Aside from the scroll, the other bit of received wisdom everybody knows about On the Road is that its countercultural pretensions are spoiled by its character’s uninterrogated biases of race and gender. Such a critique is made in and by the novel itself, however. Even Sal Paradise, to say nothing of his author, is aware from the beginning of the book that his desire to be a “a Denver Mexican, or even a poor overworked Jap, anything but what I was so drearily, a ‘white man’ disillusioned” is both bathetic and untenable. Despite his and his cohort’s endless quest through the U.S. and Mexico for exotica that will redeem them from their drearily blank identities, Kerouac always carefully describes their irresponsibility as well as Sal’s growing consciousness that the object of his quest is, as his surname suggests, beyond any terrestrial society. At the end of the Mexican orgy that draws the novel to its climax (set in a brothel, thus linking On the Road to two icons of modernism, Ulysses and Les Demoiselles d’Avignon), Sal, who had once boldly claimed of white Californians, “They thought I was a Mexican, of course; and in a way I am,” and who has compared Mexico to Africa and Arabia, is disburdened on the comedown of his exotifying illusions:
…somewhere I heard a baby wail in a sudden lull, remembering I was in Mexico after all and not in a pornographic hasheesh daydream in heaven.
Later, as he is devoured by insects, he “realize[s] the jungle takes you over and you become it,” which is to say that his desire is properly for a fusion with nature or the force behind it rather than for cultural consumption. This epiphany (Kerouac, like Joyce, was of Catholic background) harks back to an earlier episode in the novel when Sal attains a higher perspective on life:
I realized that I had died and been reborn numberless times but just didn’t remember especially because the transitions from life to death and back to life are so ghostly easy, a magical action for naught, like falling asleep and waking up again a million times, the utter casualness and deep ignorance of it. I realized it was only because of the stability of the intrinsic Mind that these ripples of birth and death took place, like the action of wind on a sheet of pure, serene, mirror-like water.
Thoreau could hardly have said it better. The novel’s metaphysics defeat its politics by ultimately raising its protagonist’s and readers’ perspectives above the cultures they may otherwise wish to consume instead of attaining a more universal enlightenment.
Kerouac is even more pointed in his portrayal of his wandering man-boys’ gender trouble. For reasons both persuasive and not, the American counterculture, even in some of its feminist variants, has since the 19th century opposed itself to what I once called “the cultural authority of middle-class domestic woman.” This authority is signified in On the Road—an almost entirely motherless novel—by its heroes’ comical profusion of aunts (“‘Yes! Yes!’ he yelled. ‘We’ve all got aunts'”), like Huckleberry Finn’s Aunt Sally and her threat to “sivilize” the recalcitrant boy. But Kerouac is coming late enough in this tradition to be able to analyze it, even to psychoanalyze it.
Dean Moriarty, who “had never seen his mother’s face,” is plainly searching for a womb to return to, despite his more overt search for his lost father. His psychological and physical abuse of women—he almost loses a thumb as a result of his battery of his second wife—is a defense against the fear of castration: in a scene wherein several of the novel’s female characters sit in judgment on Dean, he cries out, “Gawd damn…we’re all losing our fingers—hawr-hawr-hawr,” and even though it’s his thumb that is injured, and even though three other male characters suffer wounds or amputations to finger, toe, and arm, we can imagine that Kerouac, writing in the dead middle of the Freudian century, expects us to be thinking of another appendage entirely. When “the girls [look] at Dean the way a mother looks at the dearest and most errant child,” we are invited, I think, to read this against the grain, as serious satire on our wandering hero, now revealed as hopeless crybaby.
Here my praise runs short: Sal Paradise may be a lucid and intelligent narrator, but Dean Moriarty is not large enough or strong enough or complex enough to be the hero of a great novel. He is more a jumpy collection of cartoonish tics and exclamations (does any other canonical novel contain more shouts of whoopee, whooee, whoo, wow, and the like?) than a man, and he really does not bear comparison to the historical or fictional figures he might seem to evoke, such as Thoreau or Ahab. Early on, Paradise muses:
I pictured myself in a Denver bar that night, with all the gang, and in their eyes I would be strange and ragged and like the Prophet who has walked across the land to bring the dark Word, and the only Word I had was “Wow!”
Even allowing for self-satire, “Wow” does seem to sum up most of the novel’s wisdom. Passages like the one I quoted above on reincarnation are disappointingly few; mostly, the narrative is concerned with drug-fueled antics. Despite Kerouac’s aforementioned artistry, there is a steep decline here in intellectual acuity or complexity from the heights of the 19th- and early 20th-centuries’ adversary cultures. I am tempted, were I not afraid of sounding like Jeff Sessions, to blame Kerouac’s and his characters’ over-reliance on the pharmacopeia as a shortcut to wisdom. But forget Jefferson Beauregard Sessions and listen instead to Ralph Waldo Emerson, from “The Poet”:
But never can any advantage be taken of nature by a trick. The spirit of the world, the great calm presence of the creator, comes not forth to the sorceries of opium or of wine. The sublime vision comes to the pure and simple soul in a clean and chaste body. That is not an inspiration which we owe to narcotics, but some counterfeit excitement and fury. Milton says, that the lyric poet may drink wine and live generously, but the epic poet, he who shall sing of the gods, and their descent unto men, must drink water out of a wooden bowl.
Anyway, while more intricately mapped than I had imagined, On the Road, like all picaresques, is a book of local pleasures. My favorite is probably the little sketch of William S. Burroughs, “a Kansas minister with exotic, phenomenal fires and mysteries,” here disguised as Old Bull Lee, experimenting with various drugs alongside his doomed (but we don’t know it) wife Jane down in Louisiana.
Bull had a sentimental streak about the old days in America, especially 1910, when you could get morphine in a drugstore without prescription and Chinese smoked opium in their evening windows and the country was wild and brawling and free, with abundance and any kind of freedom for everyone. His chief hate was Washington bureaucracy; second to that, liberals; then cops.
Burroughs was, by moral standards both traditional and contemporary, an elaborately bad person, but freedom by its nature makes no promises. His, and this novel’s, wild libertarianism has an appeal, even to literary prigs, that it would be unwise to dismiss. Moral standards are indispensable, but the trouble begins when they have to be enforced, at which time morality may tumble clear into its opposite and justice becomes the same as injustice:
The American police are involved in psychological warfare against those Americans who don’t frighten them with imposing papers and threats. It’s a Victorian police force; it peers out of musty windows and wants to inquire about everything, and can make crimes if the crimes don’t exist to its satisfaction.
The novel ends elegiacally, at what one of Moriarty’s wives self-consciously calls “the end of the first half of the century.” You might as well write an elegy, for these morality/immoralty and justice/injustice problems are harder to solve than they appear, even if this novel is too philosophically indolent to make as much of an effort as did those greater writers (Dostoevsky, Kafka) it alludes to. Its propulsive final sentence, with its lovely concluding diminuendo, gives us the emotion if not the idea at least:
So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars’ll be out, and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear? the evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in, and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.
“God is Pooh Bear”: an odd, discordant note to strike at the end, but also perfectly right. We have been reading not about Ishmael or Raskolnikov or Dedalus or even Huckleberry Finn; we have not been reading about Robinson Crusoe but about Christopher Robin and his adventures in a bestiary made cuddly rather than menacing, and soon to be commodified for distribution among all the children of the civilization to which it is falsely advertised to be the antidote or escape. Even so, a much better book than I expected it to be.