I am back from my vacation in Punta Cana and just finished Jack Kerouac's classic On The Road. Sometimes when I am on vacation I choose to read a classic rather than some entertaining fiction; this was one of those times. I have always wondered about Kerouac. He is portrayed as an icon of the Beat generation and its primary spokesman. I spent three semesters during my college years at what is know called University of Massachusetts at Lowell, Kerouac's birth place. At the time I was attending classes there was a small sandwich shop, named Astro's, just across the street. They proudly displayed pictures of Kerouac on the grungy walls cheerily smiling and drinking with folks who I assumed were associated with Astro's. I could not guess how many degrees of separation that would be.
Most people know little or nothing about the Beat generation. I would say I knew little prior to reading the book other than the stereotypes that litter literature, television and movies. Anyone remember Bob Denver's silly portrayal of Maynard G. Krebbs from Dobbie Gillis? So devoid of knowledge of Beat's, intrigued by the myth of the man in the sandwich shop, and having available time on commercial airlines and beach chairs I went forward to experience the Beat's via their most famous spokesman.
On The Road has a unique writing style that might be described as stream of consciousness. At times it can be distracting but it seems to fit the story and message Kerouac is attempting to lay before you. The tone and tempo of the book is as chaotic and unpredictable as the Beat's themselves, and that is the point. I get the feeling that Kerouac wanted this to be groundbreaking, and judging by the amount of Kerouac and Beat scholars that analyze this and other similar books some agree. I will merely say it is the appropriate style for this book. There is an attempt to paint many of the experiences as more amazing, a pinnacle over other experiences. Kerouac fails at that. Kerouac also fails to make you feel the incredible attraction to Dean Moriarty that many of the characters in the book find irresistible.
Much like the Lost Generation before him, this book paints a portrait in time of a lost generation. While Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Steinbeck painted with words the post World War I lost souls, Kerouac does so for the post World War II lost souls. Though I think the comparison is apt, I believe he would have bristled over it. There is a sense of him attempting to distance and differentiate his generation's search for the meaning of IT from those that came before them. Amid their feeling of confusion in the search for kicks and spirituality there is also a sense of hubris; the Beats approach is superior than those that came before because no one that was come before them has understood IT.
The Beats reject consumerism and prefer experience; they reject authority and embrace personal freedom. If the book is an accurate portrayal then I suggest that the beats are superior to the Lost Generation in being self centered and petty. The Beats search ever faster and more frantic for kicks via alcohol, drugs, sex and moving from place to place. There is a search for spirituality, but that search is easily and quickly put aside for the pleasures of the flesh. Get your kicks.
The beats are another lost generation, a pale imitation of The Lost Generation. I much prefer the struggles and character of those in the novels by Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Steinbeck over those portrayed by Kerouac. The story and the writing style are a place in time, not to be repeated. Echoes of the fringe of a generation that came to believe their struggles and insight was unique, but instead I come to see them as just another lost generation. It was an interesting read, I would recommend it for the experience if not for the literary style.
A side note: I read the Penguin Classic version of the book. There is an interesting forward by Proffessor Ann Charters, a Beat scholar. I recommend you skip the forward and read the book without it. Instead read it as a post script. This book was not written to be analyzed before it was read, it was written to be experienced.