ON THE ROAD by Jack Kerouac

 In Book Reviews, Classics


Author: Jack Kerouac
Rating: 4 out of 5
Format: Print
Publisher: Penguin Classics
Release date: 1957, 2007
Recommended Reading: 17+


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OVERALL THOUGHTS: This book is a challenge. The characters are deeply flawed but still lovable, a combination that confounds the reader. The lack of formatting in The Original Scroll may cause some fatigue but it’s worth it for the authenticity it provides. The author offers you a look into the lives of the founders of the Beat Generation as he explores post-World War II America. Kerouac gives you a portrait of a very specific time and place in history but the restlessness and soul-searching the characters experience is timeless. I struggled with this book, but I’m glad I did. If you haven’t read it, I recommend it.

[note color=”#c3defd”]SYNOPSIS: “IN THREE WEEKS in April of 1951, Jack Kerouac wrote his first full draft of On the Road—typed as a single-spaced paragraph on eight long sheets of tracing paper, which he later taped together to form a 120-foot scroll. A major literary event when it was published in Viking hardcover in 2007, this is the uncut version of an American classic—rougher, wilder, and more provocative than the official work that appeared, heavily edited, in 1957. This version, capturing a moment in creative history, represents the first full expression of Kerouac’s revolutionary aesthetic.” (Amazon)[/note]

THE LOWDOWN: Inspired by Kerouac’s own adventures, On The Road was published in 1957 with names changed to protect his many friends whose extra legal hijinks are chronicled in the book. Kerouac spent several years keeping notebooks of his travels, building the story in his mind, and writing drafts. Then in 1951 he sat down for an epic three-week writing session, typing On The Road onto a 120 foot “scroll” of sheets of paper taped together, to allow him to type in one continuous, unbroken stream. In 2007 On The Road: The Original Scroll was released, and for the first time readers could experience the book as Jack Kerouac wrote it.

On The Road follows Kerouac on several cross-country road trips that took place in the 1940s. Though Kerouac meets and romances several women throughout the story, his real love is his friend Neal Cassady. Kerouac spends the first half of his journey traveling without Neal and anticipating their reunion. When they do finally meet again, they travel the country together in various “beat” cars, crashing with friends, and poring over the mysteries of life. Neal is a troubled soul with a frenetic magnetism that draws people to him. By the end of the book, he has had three wives and four children, the relationships overlapping so that one is never quite finished before the next begins.

Kerouac and Cassady criss-cross the continent, speeding recklessly through the night, stealing food and cars as needed. They blow into the homes of friends and leave chaos in their wake. For Neal and Cassady, women are beautiful creatures to be worshipped and wooed with feverish intensity, until the fever breaks and they’re left behind for the call of the road or another infatuation. They experience the world with a kind of manic ecstasy, digging the variety of characters they encounter in the vast American continent. They crave sweaty, loud, frantic life and they find it in jazz bars, in landscapes rolling by their windows, and in the throes of brief trysts.

The book pulls you into a loop of frustration and fascination. Neal’s heart is broken by the beauty of a sweet baby in an impoverished Mexican town, but his own children are abandoned, their mothers left to care for them alone. Neal doesn’t understand why the women in his life have treated him so poorly, why they aren’t on board to let him follow his every whim while they’re left holding the bag.  The closer he gets to the end of his journey, Kerouac surrenders more details about the root of his fixation with Neal, as they take a life-changing road trip to Mexico City.

The Original Scroll unfolds in page after page of text, unbroken by chapters or even paragraphs. Kerouac tells the story in a casual first person that feels like he’s sitting in your kitchen, accounting the events to you, cigarette in hand. But his prose is achingly poetic, filling your senses with the scents, sounds, temperatures, and vibrations of the road. Frustrated and weary, I felt myself being won over by Neal Cassady despite myself. Like the people in his life that he loved fiercely and eventually abandoned, for few moments I saw the world through his vibrant, saturated lens. The tension he leaves behind, the tug and pull of self-destruction and harmony that marks us as humans will never relent. And it’s alright.

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