On the Road with Jack Kerouac by Tom Donelson

Jack Kerouac “On the Road” is a book that was ahead of its time along “The Dharma Bum” with a stream of consciousness to it.  He was part of the Beat movement that arrive post World War II.  World War II punctured the idea that technological and economic progress will lead to a utopia but yet for many Americans, the economy took off to another level as jobs were plentiful, the GI bill allowed many veterans to finish college and United States become the economic superpower while much of Europe and Asia had to rebuild from the war.

As American rebuild from the war and many Americans went to work and moved to suburb so for a few Americans, it was time to look beyond the “rat-race”, traditional values and the conventional worldview.  The Beat Movement was a precursor to the 1960’s countercultural which included dissing traditional families, departure from the prevalent work experience, focus on sexual liberation and individual freedom plus the general opposition to military industrial complex even though the Beat Generation had no war to oppose.  Jack Kerouac “On The Road”, Allen Ginsberg “Howl” and William Burroughs “Naked Lunch” were the three manifesto of the Beat Generation.   Time Magazine in 2005 rated On the Road as one of the top 100 best English novels from 1923 to 2005 and is one of the great works for American literature.

The Novel is semi-biographical based on his travels Neal Cassady (Dean Moriaty), Allen Ginsberg (Carlos Marx), Old Bull Lee (William Burroughs) and other eccentric characters he knew.  The journey of Sal Paradise begins with his first trip to San Francisco and after a divorce, he meets up with Dean Moriarty, who is “tremendously excited with life” and the both are excited over the freedom of the road.  With fifty dollars in his pocket, Sal set off on the road as he thought, “”Somewhere along the line I knew there would be girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me.” He meets Remi Boncoeur and Lee Ann.  Sal gets a job as a night watchmen at a boarding camp for merchant sailors due to Remi effort and working for a short time, he moves on the world where he meets Terry on the bus toward Los Angeles.  He ends up with Terry, working on cotton field but Sal decide this is the life for him before heading him to New York and back to his Aunt house.

Dean is the most interesting character maybe he is the least moral value as he showed in Part Two when he shows up to Testament Virginia where Sal is staying with his relatives with Marylou while leaving his second wife Camille and new born baby, Amy back in San Francisco.  They go back on the road and start with driving to New York where Dean wants Sal to make love to MaryLou but Sal declines.  They meet up and Party with Carlo before heading to New Orleans and meet up with morphine addicted Old Bull Lee and his wife Jane.  Back in San Francisco, Dean leaves Marylou to go back to Camille and Marylou noted, “Dean will leave you out in the cold anytime it is in the interest of him,” and Sal leaves to go back to New York but before he does, Dean and Sal visit the jazz club scene.

During the Spring of 1949, Sal travels to Denver and San Francisco on yet another journey and as he move on the road again but he finds when he get to San Francisco, he finds that many of old friend have their own issues.  Camille is pregnant and is irritated with Dean and his friends, so he throws them out. They travel back to New York but another friend Galatea tells the truth about Dean to his face, “You have absolutely no regard for anybody but yourself and your kicks.” Sal knows that she is right but still defends him as he notes, Dean ” got the secret that we’re all busting to find out.”  After a night of partying, hitting the jazz joints and being proposition by a “fag” (Written in the 1950’s, Kerouac phrases includes words that today would be totally politically incorrect and not acceptable in most college literature classes.”

This is the point where both have their disagreement as Dean reminds Sal that Sal is the older of the two.  They get an assignment to drive 1947 Cadillac but in the process of driving the car, they speed the whole way and the car is delivered disheveled shape and Dean looks for his father on skid row. Once again, they go back to New York and continue their partying ways while Dean jumps in bed with yet another woman, Inez, who he gets pregnant while Camille is expecting their second child.

In 1950, Sal hits the road once again as Dean is working as a parking lot attendant in New York while living with Inez.  Sal simply lives for pleasures, attending basketball games or looking at erotic playing cards.  And we get into the part of the book, where Jack Kerouac takes us to Mexico where relationship are tested.   They go to Mexico with another friend Stan Shepard, and visited bordellos, smoked dope which easily accessible and party all through the country side before Sal gets dysentery while Dean leaves him in Mexico.  Sal reflects, “”when I got better I realized what a rat he was, but then I had to understand the impossible complexity of his life, how he had to leave me there, sick, to get on with his wives and woes.”

Dean gets his divorce in Mexico and marries Inez only to leave her.  Sal starts going out with a new girlfriend, Laura and consider moving to San Francisco, even contacts Dean to let him know his plans.  Dean offers to come to New York to accompany them to San Francisco and even shows up five weeks earlier.  Sal is not ready to move as he is short of money and Dean decides to head back to San Francisco.  Sal’s friend, Remi Boncoeur, refuses Sal request to give Dean a lift to 40th street on the way to Duke Ellington concert.  Dean leaves and the book ends with Sal reflecting on his road trip buddy, “I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.”  On the Road reflects a life of loneliness and betrayal.  On the Road was supposed to a book about liberation but instead it reflects a life in which the main characters dispensed with loyalty, in particular Dean Moriarty who leaves women he gets pregnant to go on the road and live a carefree life, independent of responsibility.

Jack Kerouac died of complication to alcohol at the age of 46 with 25 titles including prose and poetry and he became the Godfather of the Beat Movement, and from the Beat Movement, came the counter culture.  There was spontaneous style to Kerouac with uninhibited view of America.  On the road was the travel bible, and the original counterculture manifesto.  Dean character believes that travel itself freed them of following the rules and anxiety suffered by those around them.  Embrace the now was their creed.

Kerouac had a libertarian streak and this is seen in his character Old Bully as Kerouac noted, “Bull had a sentimental streak about the old days m 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.”  Note the line, second to that liberals.  The counter culture and the political left would also show similar disdain for liberalism of the 1960’s as the Vietnam war blazed. The Vietnam war was a war expanded by liberals of the 1960’s and the liberal mindset dominated the post War II era so much of the Beat Generation and counterculture. Kerouac understood that he helped bring in the Counterculture but he found himself abandoning the counterculture.

One thought on “On the Road with Jack Kerouac by Tom Donelson”

  1. Nice on the moral ambiguity of Dean Moriarty. Last week, I just hitchhiked through San Miguel de Allende, where Neal died beside the railroad tracks. Keeping the road spirit alive!


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