On the Road by Jack Kerouac
There are some books you read quickly because they are good and you are enjoying them: that was The Long Song for me, on the first day of my holiday. Then there are some books you read quickly because you are not enjoying them and you want to move onto the next book as quickly as possible: that was On the Road for me, on the second day of my holiday. To be fair, I knew going in that there was a chance I would dislike this novel since my Mum had said several times she ‘wasn’t sure it was really a Sally book’. However, I know that this is a novel which has had a large and lasting impact on literature, so I was determined to finish.
On the Road is the story of protagonist Sal Paradise and his friend Dean Moriaty as they travel to and fro across the U.S. From my knowledge of the novel at the start, and my subsequent research, I am aware that this is a novel which inspired many people to make this journey, travelling by road from one coast to the other. I have to say, this came as a bit of a surprise to me, since I was definitely expecting more descriptions of the surrounding landscape than Kerouac includes; whilst I was able to get a vague idea of what that part of the U.S. looks like, it by no means made me think ‘I have to see all this right now’ and get in a car. Perhaps I’m overlooking the particular time into which Kerouac was writing, but I am still struggling to see why it was such an important novel for so many people. If anyone has any insights into this, I would love to hear them.
Primarily, my issue with the novel is the characters, or, more specifically, the male characters. I am still unsure as to whether the reader is supposed to sympathise with the protagonist but I have to say at no point during the novel did I feel any sympathy for any of the male characters. The mindset of this friendship group can only be described as hugely misogynistic, deeply entrenched in the idea that all women should indulge them in their every whim. Their lack of any sense of responsibility is clearly shown in their relationships with the women they meet on the road, particularly with Dean who, on more than one occasion, gets someone he is supposedly married to pregnant and then runs for the door. By far my favourite part of the novel was when Sal and Dean found themselves in a roomful of women they had hurt, directly or indirectly, and were shown no mercy as the women told them exactly how much they hated them.
Through the moral greyness which permeates the novel there is the remnant of an implication from Kerouac that Dean’s way of life is not one to be celebrated. The novel ends with Sal settling down, taking responsibility for the way in which his actions affect those around him. Yet Dean continues to treat the women in his life with the ultimate disrespect, even when they have shown him nothing but grace. The contrast is made clear when Sal’s wife makes the comment that she feels sad for Dean; I can’t say that I share her sentiment, but I was glad that Kerouac did end with the implication that Dean is not someone to imitate.
I actually am glad that I read this, if only because I now have an opinion (and a strong one) when it comes up in discussion. This is a well-known novel which has clearly had a big impact on the society we live in. Yet it is not a novel I enjoyed, nor is it a novel I would ever recommend to anyone. There are much better novels out there with much less destructive worldviews, and there is a whole list of other novels I would give to someone before I would ever give them this.