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A Different Road

November’s book – which I actually managed to read in November – for my 2008 reading challenge was Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. I can’t remember why I picked this book – I think it was one on a list of possible titles, and I managed to find a (free) copy on bookmooch.com. It’s certainly not a book I’d ever really planned to read. And, having finished it, I doubt I’ll be reading it again.

I’d always thought On the Road was a 1960s novel*, about someone living rough during that decade, living the hippy dream of LSD, Grateful Dead and giving two fingers to the Man. It’s nothing of the sort. For a start, it’s set in the late 1940s. And it’s about marijuana and jazz and subsistence-level jobs (and poverty). The protagonist, Sal Paradise, spends much of the book driving from one place to the other – so that’s “on the road” as in actual driving on the road in a car, not as in living rough like a vagrant (although he does hitch-hike several times). Most of these travels are with an assorted cast of friends, or in order to meet up with said friends. And chief among these is Dean Moriarty, who is “Beat”.

The book is a novel but it’s actually a thinly-disguised autobiography. The events it describes actually happened to Kerouac, and the various characters Paradise meets are the real people Kerouac met. Moriarty is Neal Cassady, for example; Carlo Marx is Allen Ginsberg; and Old Bull Lee is William Burroughs.

Kerouac wrote On the Road in what he called “spontaneous prose”. It shows. It’s not prose you can savour. Much of it possesses a breathless clumsiness which only works if you read it as fast as he apparently wrote it. Kerouac also has a tin ear for dialogue. Perhaps his intent was to document the spontaneity of his characters’ thought processes, but the result is that they talk mostly unfettered bollocks.

It’s not all bad. Some of the descriptive passages are good, and Kerouac’s documenting of the underbelly of late 1940s USA is never less than interesting. A visit to a jazz club in Chicago, for example, is especially impressive, and works so well because its prose is spontaneous. But On the Road is a “cult” novel – which usually means you either get it or you don’t. And I didn’t. I don’t understand the appeal of Paradise’s adventures, I don’t understand the appeal of a book you have to read at such a headlong pace. I don’t belong to a generation – or nationality – which finds anything all that enticing about its subject. To be fair, Paradise’s attitudes seem more twenty-first century than are typical for 1940s America. Which is admirable. At one point, he stays in “Mill City” in California (actually Marin City), and describes it as the only non-segregated community in the US. He mixes freely with blacks and Mexicans… which seems unusual for a country which practiced overt institutional racism until the 1960s.

On balance, On the Road falls squarely in the middle of those books I’ve read during my reading challenge. I didn’t hate it, but neither did I stick Kerouac’s other titles on my wants list. I enjoyed bits of it, but I can’t say I enjoyed all of it. Perhaps if I’d been alive in the 1950s and read the book at that time, perhaps if I were American, perhaps if I actually liked jazz…

(* if the edition I read had the cover art I’ve used to illustrate this review, then perhaps I wouldn’t have thought it was about the 1960s)

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