On the Road – Jack Kerouac

There are books you read when you are nowhere near ready for them. I was a stupid kid (I’m now a stupid adult), and I kept the company of other stupid kids. A fellow stupid kid (now fellow stupid adult) once handed me a copy of ‘On the Road’ with a dismissive ‘It’s a classic.’ Sure, he wasn’t wrong. But since then I have really come to question such statements.

That was 19 years ago. When I read this then, I didn’t have the knowledge to understand much of what I was reading, and appreciating it was pretty much impossible. Now, I do. But now there is a new problem, namely that I don’t think there is much of anything here to admire.

On the Road is a novel where Jack Kerouac gives you a wide overview of the American popular landscape at the genesis of the beat movement. It describes the very real people of Kerouac’s life and the adventures they go on.

In not a terribly flattering way, it reminds of this way my father has of speaking about his past, and the people he knew fifty odd years ago, as if we should all open up the pages of the New York Times and see these people’s picture1.

The thing is that I was wrong with my initial assessment of this book. The key issues isn’t that I was too young to understand it when I first read it. No, the real issue is that there isn’t all that much to enjoy. Neither now nor when I was a kid did I ever read for the gossip column of it all. I don’t watch TMZ either, and I couldn’t pull Meghan Markle out of a police lineup. Whatever it is that I do read for, I don’t read for anything a Roman à clef, is ever going to give me. I like William Burroughs, I’ve read Naked Lunch a few times (and listened to the audiobook several times) and I still don’t give too shits about the ‘Old Bull Lee’ character of the book, no matter how heavy handed Kerouac held his pen. This is all to say that there is much regarding the ‘content’ of the novel (for lack of a better word) that is painful bad. I don’t know who Neal Cassady is, and I don’t think I should care. Considering that when I googled him what came up was a blurb about him being the real life version of Dean Moriarty, it feels like he has reached Kardashian and Paris Hilton levels of ‘famous for being famous’. These character had few admirable traits, something they share with the characters in The Dharma Bums, and there were many points while reading this where I would get fed up with these characters and their dumb, ill-informed, bong-cloud opinions. I once wondered if the beat generation, glorified by these navel gazers who seemingly believe whatever the hell they want, are not the genesis of our post-truth generation. The apex of my dislike for these assholes came in the last quarter of the book, when they go down to Mexico to have an ‘authentic experience’. They pretty much out and out say ‘These noble savages are so poor. I’m jealous!’, and I found myself really disappointed when the fucking gringos weren’t mugged and left for dead.

I sometimes worry this blog is far too negative. I do find it a lot harder to comment on books that I enjoy, so it makes sense. I am trying my best to be more open minded about what I read, and finding some nuggets of good in everything. One can give credit to Kerouac for recognizing in this text that all American pop music comes from African American, which seems to be expressed clearly in the book. I also really did enjoy some of Kerouac’s character descriptions. He has an excellent way of giving you a lot of character in very few lines.

There seemed to me a weird negative Hemingway here. Hemingway was bravado via ‘look how manly I am, and the things I’ve done’ while Kerouac’s bravado all seems to be ‘look at who I know and the things I’ve done’. Here’s something hard to unpack – my own experiences more match Kerouac’s (well, minus the gossip column. ‘I’ve done drugs’ is what I mean to say), but I’d rather read Hemingway’s. The older I get, the less tolerant I am of people’s drug fueled shower thoughts, both in real life and in what I read. That’s why I disliked ‘Dharma Bums’, and that’s why I didn’t care for this.

1 Sometimes it was worse than that. Anecdote time. Years ago, before I developed an opinion about this book or ‘classics’ in general, a friend of mine told me that they were listening to the audiobook version of this, and commented that in the book’s opening, when Dean Moriarty is first mentioned, the narrator sounds like he has the largest possible erection at the mere mention of Dean’s name. He let me listen to it, and it was one of the funniest fucking things I had ever heard.


I read this novel out of obligation for my job. You are going to get a lot of these in the coming months, so be warned. Reading by obligation is not anyone’s idea of fun, so that may affect the quality of these posts.

Frankly, I have no idea. And I am happy this way.

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