::Literate Blather::
Tuesday, July 10, 2007
"On the Road" Turns 50
Jack Kerouac's Classic Remains a Timeless Ode to Freedom

My silver car streaked down the highway. Van Halen’s “Everybody Wants Some!!” pounded out the car speakers. With the windows rolled down, the warm twilight rushed through the interior, whipping my hair. I was speeding, but the sensation of freedom was too great and the music too loud to slow down.

But then a red light and I was forced to hit the brakes. At the side of the road was a beggar; young guy with a scruffy beard, bleary red-rimmed eyes, and a baggy navy-blue sweatshirt marred by several stains. He held a sign, but I couldn’t make it out.

On impulse, I pulled out my wallet and handed him a five-dollar bill. He smiled and with a nod said: “God bless you.”

I wanted to tell him there is no god, but we both understood that he wasn’t being literal. He was being gracious – and a bit disingenuous, but he was playing his role and I was playing mine.

The light flicked green and I roared off. But I was already contemplating Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, the two protagonists of Jack Kerouac’s 1957 classic “On the Road,” which turns half-a-century old this year. I wondered if my beggar was grooving on his freedom – silently laughing at me as I returned to the chains of my own conventional life.

It was that thought that finally slowed me down. I began to ponder on the mysterious power of freedom and how “On the Road” may have captured that spirit better than any other novel in the last 100 years.

“On the Road” might be turning middle aged, but the novel remains as energetic and vibrant as a 21-year-old hitchhiking across the United States with a backpack and a lot of gumption. Despite the renewed interest in Kerouac and the Beat Generation, “On the Road” continues to be an underrated and underappreciated work of fiction.

Many critics have belatedly praised the book fro its influence on modern writers, rock music, and even movies, but they seem to do so begrudgingly. They like to point out the flaws of the novel – its jerky narrative and uneven flow; its revolving door of minor and insignificant characters. But to do so is to miss the point of “On the Road.”

The novel is a subversive classic – a work fiction that shattered the conventions of post-World War II America and read like a fast-paced jazz tune played in a smoky roadhouse. While the government and mass media were busy praising our unprecedented war victory and urging Americans to get back to work, settle down in a nice little bungalow, and raise law-abiding children, Kerouac was there to remind us that not everyone wanted to be part of that program. He boldly told us that victory over Germany and Japan didn’t mean a commitment to a life of mind-numbing conformity.

Kerouac screamed that messages to the heavens. He flipped his middle fingers at traditional American values and reminded us that there was more to life than a dreary 9 to 5 existence with church on Sunday. “On the Road” is about the search for independence – a quest for free will. It is about following emotions – letting the little demons of our souls loose every once in a while.

The New York Times Book Review called “On the Road” the “Huckleberry Finn” of the 20th century – but even that lofty comparison misses the mark. “On the Road” isn’t following in the footsteps of “Huckleberry Finn” – it blazed its own way to become something completely different.

The novel is stunningly iconoclastic. It is men speeding across the desert in the nude to feel the hot wind whipping across their sweaty chests. It is threesomes having sex together to experiment and explore. It is dive bars filled with jazz musicians and spectators smoking pot and grooving to the music. It is educated men turning their backs on respectability and living like bums.

As Kerouac writes: “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a common place thing, but burn burn burn, like fabulous yellow Roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”

Perhaps one of the most overlooked and amazing characters in the book in Dean Moriarty’s girlfriend (and sometime wife) Marylou. Can you imagine the courage of this woman? In a time when women were often considered indentured servants – she was whizzing across the United States with two mad hipsters. She was having sex, getting drunk, and taking drugs. She danced on tabletops at jazz clubs. She made her own rules.

How terrifying for America; an independent woman who danced to the beat of her own soul and lay bare her own wants and desires. Marylou is so mystifying, so dangerous (the Joan Jett of her generation) that she even confounds Sal and Dean. She’s so far beyond them in unconformity and courage that they need to degrade her with names like “whore” – while still being completely under her intoxicating spell. So while the men of “On the Road” get all the attention, it is easy to forget that they had partners of the opposite sex with them.

“On the Road” continues to rage. It continues to push convention even 50 years later.

It’s much more effective capturing the essence of freedom than speeding down a highway listening to rock music.

How is that for lasting power?

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