October 5, 2007

Kerouac's On The Road: The 50th Anniversary Of A Book I Had Not Read




So I read it.  

What is striking is how little it resembles the book everyone seems to think it is.  

Has anyone actually read this book?  Nine people total, all literary critics?

Enough has been written about the book itself.  A more interesting question is why so many people got it so wrong.  


I can't be the only one whose impression of the book, from hearing about it but not actually reading it, was that it was about young, potent men, lost in a growing commercial society, two coiled springs ready to pop, looking for adventure-- America style.   And this Road Trip that launched a thousand, other boring, useless road trips, was about young men looking to experience the world, really see, really live, really feel, free of the constraints of an artificial post war soulless society.  So, khakis on and Moleskine's in shirt pockets, top down on an old convertible, they set out to find life.  Testosterone, benzedrine, and a full tank of gas.

Well, guess what?  That impression is wrong.  You know what the book is really about?  It's a primer on how to be a narcissist.

Right off the bat: these are not cool guys.  This isn't even Henry Miller uncool.  This is not a dismissive insult, but the only word that can be used to describe the Sal Paradise/Kerouac character is "dork."  Remember the guy in high school who quoted Monty Python and the Monster Manual-- seemed smart-- but was unable to distinguish himself in any meaningful way?   He has big ideas, of course, but is full of ambivalence, lacking in any type of purposeful drive, no real direction.   Restless, but lazy.  That's Sal, that's On The Road.  This is not testosterone augmented with benzedrine.  This is a guy who likes his naps.  Here are the first two sentences of the book:

I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up. I had just gotten over a serious illness I won't bother to talk about, except that it had something to do with the miserably weary split-up and my feeling that everything was dead. (1)

You can already tell this is going to be the story of a passive guy who needs to be lead.

Well, he finds such a leader in Dean Moriarty.  I won't bore you with the character analysis; suffice it to say that Dean is (I guess) the "free-spirit" character everyone imagines the book must be about, bedding women, stealing cars, doing whatever the moment calls for.  I know it sounds very superman, literary, but it's not.  Dean isn't an antihero, or even amoral, or a free spirit-- he's simply a jerk.  I defy anyone to identify anything he does in the book that is worthy of any sort of praise or emulation.  When he talks, your sole instinct is to open fire at a Starbucks.  You don't want to be Dean Moriarty, you want to bitch slap him.  Not only does he do nothing of any value to anyone, he does nothing with purpose.  He's a bullshitter without any reason to bullshit.  It's empty, idiotic.  Here, I literally opened the book to a page and put a finger down:

[Sal] said, "there must be some ideal bars in town."

"The ideal bar doesn't exist in America.  An ideal bar is something that's gone beyond our ken.  In 1910 a bar was a place where men went to meet after work, and all there was was a long counter, brass rails, spittoons... Now all you get is chromium, drunken women..."

Here's another, again at random, I swear: 

"The truth of the matter is we don't understand out women; we blame on them and it's all our fault," I said.

"But it isn't as simple as that," warned Dean.  "Peace will come suddenly, we won't understand when it does-- see, man?" 

I've heard these same kind of sentiments expressed hundreds of times, not ironically always in bars and coffeeshops. And I had the same reaction then: if she sleeps with him, I'm going  Unabomber. 

But enough about the characters, what about the spirit of the book?  You know, getting out there, seeing life?

The notion that they're trying to experience things or learn things or grow is precisely wrong.  That's the mistake nearly everyone I talk to has made.  The experiences are incidental, the learning completely absent; the real purpose of the trip is to say that you went on the trip.

It seems impossible to me that you could take a trip around the country and literally notice nothing about your surroundings, but that's exactly what happens.  I know "America" is supposed to figure prominently into the spirit of the book, but it could easily have been A Railpass Through Europe  or Backpacking Through The Warsaw Pact and it would have made no difference, at all.   That America is not well described could be dismissed as poor writing, but it's actually an example of very accurate writing: the setting has no external importance whatsoever-- except as it impacts them.  That's narcissism.  It's simply a prop for an image they want to convey; traveling down Route 6 for them is the same as the career of the female lead in every romantic comedy (writer/designer) or the apartment of the male lead, rich or poor (Soho loft.) 

They're always rushing to get to the next great place; every place they get to turns out to be a disappointment.  And so off again to the next great place. For some reason this is taken to be the result of some inner passion, some drive to experience new things.  It's not.  The real point of the drive is: as long as they're traveling, they don't have to confront the reality of a place.  

The entire spirit of the book can be summarized by Dean's words: "Sal, think of it, we'll dig Denver together...!"  That's what a man who is trying to con a woman into running off with him would say.  Denver, really??  Really?  Why?  Because it starts with D?  I'd at least momentarily entertain the theory that D cities are great places to get to, but the real reason he wants to get to Denver, or anywhere else, is precisely because the longer he stays in any one place, the better chance he'll be discovered to be a loser.  Time to go where the grass is greener, somewhere people don't know you're there to crap on it.

That's what the Road is.  The Road isn't freedom, or possibility, or growth; it's denial.  It's not having to confront the triviality and purposelessness of your existence.  It's not having to listen to your Mom tell you you aren't going to get into college with those grades, or a wife who nags you about being out all night drinking instead of fixing the bathroom because, well, you've been out all night drinking and not fixing the bathroom.

This narcissistic ambivalence is the root cause of their disappointment in each-- the same  reason dating is so hard for some teens and 20-somethings.   You don't actually want a girl, they want the possibilities of a girl, before she becomes a real person.  Before you learn she likes American Idol, before you discover her annoying laugh, and, most of all, before she finds out who you really are-- before you can't fool her anymore. 

If you want further evidence of this parallel, consider the book describes numerous encounters with really young girls.  I'm guessing Kerouac wasn't trying to convince us he was a pedophile;  So why tell us?  Take it at face value, what appeal could there be?  The same as for any regressed pedophile: it's easier to convince a young girl (or a broken girl) that you're somebody.  The strong but introspective loner; the mustached, Porsche driving, sophisticate; a good lover, a genius, an artist, whatever.  Try that on a normal woman and you know what you get?  Fake orgasms.

This is the story of two guys at the junior prom, standing in the corner, fantasizing about what it'll be like after they get discovered.  Not that they're taking any concrete steps towards that end beyond simply fantasizing.

And further supporting their small mindedness-- they're thinking about what those girls at this dance will think about them ten years from now.

Narcisissm is consciously creating an artificial identity that you then fight tooth and nail to get others to believe is true. That's On The Road.  Not just the plot of On The Road, but On The Road itself.  Consider how it was written: everyone knows  that Kerouac was high on benzedrine, and the book poured out of him, in three weeks of sleepless creation, typed onto a single, long scroll of paper, unedited, raw, real.  But here's the thing: the book wasn't the result of that process, he planned that specific process in advance, on purpose.   Same with the cross country trips--  this wasn't a restless guy, who had to travel, had to move, and then later wrote a memoir; he went on the trips in order to write a book. He actually started the book before he even went on the trip.  The process didn't generate a book; the process was the whole point.   The novel's popularity rests entirely on the image around it, that he created, on purpose.  That's why its popularity exists despite apparently so few people actually having read it.  If the book had been published anonymously, no one today would have ever heard of it.

This is the main problem with people who love On The Road but have never actually read it.  They think Kerouac is in that book, so they think they like Kerouac.  Or, at least, the person they think Kerouac is, i.e. the character in the book, or, more accurately, the character they think is in the book.

This partially explains some of the problem Kerouac had after the publication of the book. By the time it was published in 1957 he was 35, but it was about trips he had taken ten years earlier.  People hounded him see if he was like Dean (in fact, Kerouac was Sal, but everyone wanted him to be the "cool" character.)  They wanted him to be a young, free-man hipster type, not a lonely alcoholic living with his mom.   But that's what he had wanted them to think when he wrote it.  When he's taking the trips and writing the book, creating an identity and convincing people of it is all that's important.  But by the time he's 40 and that fake identity never really pans out, he's disgusted with himself.  I'm going to guess that of the 9 people in America who have actually read the book, most read it in high school.  If they read it as adults, they'd probably feel about it like Kerouac did at 40:

At the end of the book (SPOILER!) Sal/Kerouac becomes disillusioned, disgusted with Dean.  Relationships end for everybody, but what's different is Kerouac is disillusioned by Dean as a mentor.  Who the hell has mentors?  Answer: people looking to become something they are not.  That's what happened to Kerouac.  Now he's 40: he's not Sal, he's not Dean, he's not a hipster, and damned if everyone didn't misunderstand the book (of course: they had only read about it.)   I can understand why he becomes a drunk.  That's where unrequited narcissism always leads.

It seems a lot of people have developed notions and ideas that are partially informed by On The Road-- the version that they imagine exists, the one with Nietzschean super-antiheros looking for truth behind the wheel of a convertible.  But what happens to those ideas when you one day discover that your version was wrong?

Here's your tie in to medicine.  Doctors like to remind people that "there's still a lot we don't know."  That's a distraction from the more truthful version, "there's a lot we don't know about what is already known, that we're supposed to know." They have notions of what the clinical trials showed, or what Freud said, or how medicines work, that are wrong-- but they're basing entire careers on these wrong ideas.

Here's the thing: even when someone actually sits and reads the primary text and finds it is different, it doesn't replace their existing (wrong) information, it only supplements it.  There's not one On the Road that people got wrong; there are now two On The Roads, one they read and one they imagined existed, and they get to pick which one they want.  I guess that's ok, as long as it's only On The Road.



1. Interestingly, Kerouac's original version wrote not of the separation of his wife, but of the death of his father, which is not only more accurate, but considerably more powerful, especially as it related to "the feeling everything was dead."  I don't know what to make of this change.