On The Road by Jack Kerouac
Perceptions of books, particularly classics, morph as you read them over time. Nowhere does this seem truer to me than with the modern classic, On The Road, by father of the Beat generation himself, Jack Kerouac. Generally it appeals to fresh-eyed youngsters eager to explore the world and over time its potency is generally lost to readers.
I can still remember shuffling into the school library and finding it randomly on the library shelf when I was 15. The library was my sanctuary, living in a small town of 3000 at a school where sport was god. This was my place of worship, and the place of other miscreants who felt safe in its bosom. Here we dreamt of a place beyond our small-town existences.
It was my thirst for freedom and the world that had me hooked on this book just from reading its back cover. Written in the late 1950s its pages still managed to ooze cool and freedom. So much so that years later I took a cheesy and well-worn pilgrimage to San Francisco to find the house where Kerouac wrote the book in fits of creative frenzy, and to hang out at the various North Beach haunts of the beats one Christmas Day.
Fast forward to my life as a 35-year-old wife and mother of two, there are things about this book I truly detest. The treatment of women is deplorable. Its male protagonists in their selfish quest for freedom regularly leave children, girlfriends and wives in the dust as they pursue their own wander lust. Generally the men of this era were free to wander, while many of their female peers were condemned to madness and placed in institutions. The pursuit of freedom appears to me now as a huge whopping illusion which left many casualties in its wake.
Yet the book remains worthy in my eyes as a trail blazer of experimental writing. I still love the book’s unusual syntax, streams of consciousness and its unstoppable, infectious energy. Kerouac tried to replicate the music of the times, bebop jazz, and to capture the spirit of the times with America on the cusp of mass social change. In this he appeared to capture the hearts and minds of a generation as he unwittingly became the poster boy for what was called the ‘Beatnik generation’, the precursor generation to the hippies of the 1960s.
Since this work was largely autobiographical it is fitting to tell you the way Kerouac’s vagabond life came to an end at the early age of 47 – he died from internal hemorrhaging due to heavy drinking while living with his mother and third wife. It was fun and revelatory while it lasted but reality caught up with Kerouac in the end and I guess this says a lot about pursuing freedom at all costs. Also how edited his ‘On the Road’ lifestyle was, omitting the years of living an ordinary life with his spouses and mother. This is how I feel about the book now – ambiguous and mixed. While I love its style I question its rather juvenile pursuit of a mostly physical form of freedom.