On the Road: The archetypal travel companion

“Holy flowers floating in the air, were all these tired faces in the dawn of Jazz America.”
– Jack Kerouac, On the Road, Part 3, Ch. 4

Writing about far-off lands and travelling to exotic places is not a new theme: authors have been doing it throughout history. The desire to travel, to find new landscapes and new experiences, is an inescapable part of being human and forms the root of most of our artistic endeavours. But in my opinion at least, few books have ever captured the experience of wanderlust as well as Kerouac’s On the Road. Constantly on the move, constantly yearning and searching, Kerouac’s creation has inspired countless people and captured perfectly the experiences of the disillusioned post-war generation.

The novel recounts the experiences of a young Italian-American, Sal Paradise, who has just been demobilised from the army after World War II. Sometimes alone but most often with his animated, jittery friend Dean Moriarty, he travels across all corners of the American continent. Through his eyes and Kerouac’s erratic, spontaneous prose, we see mountains, rivers, poverty, drugs, and most clearly of all the ‘open road’. There’s something about the narration of this novel that encapsulates the restlessness of the author himself: the long sentences, completely random exclamations, and beautiful, long-winded imagery all contribute to a sense of impatience and edginess which can only be alleviated by the constant exposure to new things.

Although Americans are often lambasted for their lack of willingness to travel, one can see why they wouldn’t bother: Kerouac’s novel exhibits some of the finest landscapes of the continent. From the mean streets of New York to the wide open skies of the Midwest to sunlit Californian valleys, Sal Paradise marvels at it all. Through his eyes, America seems to be a place filled with new and exciting experiences: interesting characters, love to be found for a night, music and never-ending talk. There are so many characters in the book that it is difficult to keep track of them all, particularly because the narrative is more a long, autobiographical string of experiences rather than a constructed plot. The fact that Kerouac only took eight weeks to write the novel is evident, but it does not detract from the book’s charm. Rather, the continuous stream of thoughts and experiences mirrors the single-mindedness of his travels.

One of the most engaging aspects of the book is that more than something to be actively engaged with, the road seems to become a means by which it is possible to escape from normal life. Alienation is a powerful theme throughout the book, reflecting the disillusionment and depression of the post-war generation, most of whom (Kerouac included) served in the armed forces. In the midst of these experiences, there is an aching loneliness and a desperation to fit in, which perhaps contributes to the heavy drug and alcohol culture casually demonstrated throughout the book. Kerouac does not shy away from documenting some of the hardships of America’s most disadvantaged, in fact, he even revels in it; describing the underprivileged quarters of the country’s black and Mexican minorities while simultaneously showing a longing to be part of it. The road, although ostensibly liberating, can be seen as their own form of purgatory: Paradise (an ironic name choice perhaps?) and Moriarty cannot be part of the society they long to be. They are too poor, too weary, or too reckless to be accepted into society.

This is by no means saying that the book is depressing. On the contrary: On the Road can be positively jubilant. The character of Moriarty in particular, based on Kerouac’s friend Neal Cassady, shines through as a feckless, spirited, jittery, wild creation who leaves a trail wherever he goes. What is surprising is how little we as readers manage to dislike Dean, a womaniser who ups and leaves his wife and infant daughter whenever it pleases him. Despite the sense of aching loneliness which pervades the book, Kerouac shows that joy can still exist alongside it: in partying with friends till dawn, and simply the joy of travelling for travelling’s sake. One quote that especially struck me: ‘The purity of the road. The white line in the middle of the highway unrolled and hugged our front left tire as if glued to our groove’. I am sure we can all identify with this, the feeling of never actually wanting to get to our destination because the getting there itself is the best part.

On the Road is the archetypal travel book. The transient, fluid and restless quality of the novel immediately defines it as a youth classic, perfect for the wanderer or the one who just wants to see new horizons. Paradise, and therefore by default Kerouac, personifies the disenchanted and cynical nature of the Beat generation, while at the same time radiating an inexplicable joy and hedonism. As one of the most original voices to come out of America, Kerouac manages to redefine the American dream while concurrently exploring the underside of this extraordinary continent. Beneath the wide emptiness of the American sky, we too feel a restlessness, a desire to see new things, and a wish to equally gain some kind of meaning from them.

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