Sunday, 19 February 2006

Review: On the Road, Jack Kerouac (1957)

While a lot seems to happen due to all the travelling and moving around, our interest in the conversations or meetings with people in the various parts of the U.S. Sal visits is tempered by the knowledge that it is all essentially pointless. The restlessness that accompanies the travelling is also present in the conversations. Rencontres with people in New York, Denver, San Francisco and places in between are rather flat and unrevealing. Dean, of course, is a disaster waiting for a place to happen.

The surroundings wherever they stay — the narrator’s name is Sal Paradise — are not illuminating in any conventional sense, and rarely illuminate the nature of the people who live within them. Sal and Dean move from place to place but nothing substantial is pinned down in a strict novelistic way, so that the movement itself becomes the purveyor of meaning. With Kerouac, you dread the sedentary because the characters dread it also. This is slightly comic in itself, and completely unintended by the author.

It was a completely meaningless set of circumstances that made Dean come, and similarly I went off with him for no reason.

Dean is supposed to be a completely ferocious father figure who makes great talk at high speed, but nothing he says is of any consequence or meaning to the reader. We can only guess at the profundities he produces.

And Dean talked, no one else talked. He gestured furiously, he leaned as far as me sometimes to make a point, sometimes he had no hands on the wheel and yet the car went as straight as an arrow, not for once deviating from the white line in the middle of the road that unwound, kissing our left front tire.

What is it about Dean that is so magnetic?

I learned that Dean had lived happily with Camille in San Francisco ever since that fall of 1947; he got a job on the railroad and made a lot of money. He became the father of a cute little girl, Amy Moriarty. Then suddenly he blew his top while walking down the street one day. He saw a ‘49 Hudson for sale and rushed to the bank for his entire roll. He bought the car on the spot. Ed Dunkel was with him. Now they were broke. Dean calmed Camille’s fears and told her he’d be back in a month. “I’m going to New York and bring Sal back.” She wasn’t too pleased at this prospect.
  “But what’s the purpose of all this? Why are you doing this to me?”
  “It’s nothing, it’s nothing, darling—ah—hem—Sal has pleaded and begged with me to come and get him, it is absolutely necessary for me to—but we won’t go into all these explanations—and I’ll tell you why . . . No, listen, I’ll tell you why.” And he told her why, and of course it made no sense.

But we’re not told, and perhaps miss out on some of Dean’s famous charm. We could do with something, I’ll tell you. But there’s nothing, nothing at all.

Carlo came back at dawn and put on his bathrobe. He wasn’t sleeping any more those days. “Ech!” he screamed. He was going out of his mind from the confusion of jam on the floor, pants, dresses thrown around, cigarette butts, dirty dishes, open books—it was a great forum we were having. Every day the world groaned to turn and we were making our appalling studies of the night. Marylou was black and blue from a fight with Dean about something; his face was scratched. It was time to go.

Why not tell us about the fight? What about the reasons for the fight? Why is Carlo just pushed aside like this as these adult children go about making a mess? Spending money when they have it, fighting when they don’t.

What are “appalling studies of the night”? What is said, what actually goes on, where are the revelations that are promised again and again in this novel?

The flat, ‘beat’ (tr. 'defeated') tone is ideal for the story because nothing gets done, there’s no character development — the only character worth saving is Sal’s aunt.

“Whooee!” yelled Dean. “Here we go!” and he hunched over the wheel and gunned her; he was back in his element, everybody could see that. We were all delighted, we all realized we were leaving confusion and nonsense behind and performing our one noble function of the time, move.

The “confusion and nonsense” is actually what they had made of their surroundings themselves, and they need to keep moving, like crazed, modern-day hunter-gatherers, to a new place — any new place — so that they can repeat the pattern again: make more confusion and nonsense.

At ten I took the wheel—Dean was out for hours—and drove several hundred dreary miles across the bushy snows and ragged sage hills. Cowboys went by in baseball caps and earmuffs, looking for cows. Comfortable little homes with chimneys smoking appeared along the road at intervals. I wished we could go in for buttermilk and beans in front of the fireplace.

This yearning for normalcy is part of the charm of the novel, but you know it would turn out to be a deb√Ęcle. These overgrown children, who steal, beg and whine would turn the house into a pigsty within hours, and then just roar off in the Hudson in search of another place to destroy.

They get to San Francisco and immediately Dean, the hero, is off on his own private tangent:

Suddenly Dean was saying good-by. He was bursting to see Camille and find out what had happened. Marylou and I stood dumbly in the street and watched him drive away. “You see what a bastard he is?” said Marylou. “Dean will leave you out in the cold any time it’s in his interest.”
  “I know,” I said, and I looked back east and sighed. We had no money. Dean hadn’t mentioned money. “Where are we going to stay?” We wandered around, carrying our bundles of rags in the narrow romantic streets.

As long as the streets are romantic, Sal can stand the pressure of destitution. He manages to get by, but eventually has to leave for the east again.

At dawn I got my New York bus and said good-by to Dean and Marylou. They wanted some of my sandwiches. I told them no. It was a sullen moment. We were all thinking we’d never see one another again and we didn’t care.

Thus ends another trip to the west. Another cheque, another set of meaningless circumstances and a few days lolling around jazz bars. But Sal nevertheless goes back to San Francisco, and this time Dean’s wife Camille kicks Sal out. Their friends try to tell them the truth about themselves.

  “I think Marylou was very, very wise leaving you, Dean,” said Galatea. “For years now you haven’t had any sense of responsibility for anyone. You’ve done so many awful things I don’t know what to say to you.”
  And in fact that was the point, and they all sat around looking at Dean with lowered and hating eyes, and he stood on the carpet in the middle of them and giggled—he just giggled. He made a little dance.

It’s really quite charming that Kerouac is able to put this type of encounter in his book. It almost makes up to the reader for the idiocy of much of the rest, although it doesn’t make up to Marylou and Camille and all the other people Dean has been letting down for so many years. Sal finds that Dean really needs him this time. In fact, it was Sal who had sought out Dean, reversing the usual pattern of their encounters. So Sal feels responsible, and that makes him happy. Despite the hopelessness of the movement of these characters as they trundle around the country in cars and without the means to support themselves, the book is quietly captivating, charming in a pathetic way. We just hope that we’ll never have to be stuck with characters like these in our real lives. And maybe that’s the allure of this book — that it can make the reader feel safer who is willing to make peace with the world.

These people are certainly damaged. Dean is clearly traumatised by life and cannot sustain a real relationship with anyone for long. The demons keep pursuing him. It is arguable whether Kerouac suffered some trauma in childhood that he never recovered from.

This is supposed to be a classic book, a piece of publishing history, written by one of the “fathers of the Beat Generation”, as one Web site puts it. But the shortcomings of the characters in this autobiographical novel are so pronounced you feel they should be receiving counselling to cope with their problems, or some sort of chemical treatment. They are monsters who don't feel the need to change, but their charm is never explained by Kerouac. It is hard to apologise for the poverty of the characterisation on account of an acceptable style. Kerouac’s rants on anthropology are beyond understanding and his ecstasies over jazz are simply tiresome.

Something would come of it yet. There’s always more, a little further—it never ends. They sought to find new phrases after Shearing’s explorations; they tried hard. They writhed and twisted and blew. Every now and then a clear harmonic cry gave new suggestions of a tune that would someday be the only tune in the world and would raise men’s souls to joy. They found it, they lost, they wrestled for it, they found it again, they laughed, they moaned—and Dean sweated at the table and told them to go, go, go.

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