Books, Reviews

Book Review: On the Road by Jack Kerouac – Jamie Tuohy


“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes”.

On the Road was first published in 1957 and it is the second novel by Jack Kerouac. Its publication marked a turning point in post-war literature, as Kerouac’s tale of jazz, sex, poetry, drugs and a tainted American dream became the definitive essence of the Beat Generation – a generation which Kerouac himself is the prime exemplar. On the Road is for the most part, a largely autobiographical novel, recanting the exploits of Jack Kerouac’s cross-country adventure through post-war America. The novel tells the story of Salvatore “Sal” Paradise and his friend Dean Moriarty, both of whom travel around America, living a life of sexual freedom, bohemian ecstasy and carefree nonchalance, all the while, hitchhiking their way around the country. When the novel was first published in 1957, it instantly became a classic, with the New York Times, hailing its publication as “historic” and the “most beautifully executed, the clearest and most important utterance yet made  by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as ‘beat’ and whose principal avatar he is”.

Gilbert Millstein’s review in the New York Times is as true today, as it was on September 4, 1957. Kerouac’s narrative is blunt, incredibly honest, unapologetic and races across the page, just as its protagonist Sal Paradise and his hero Dean Moriarty race across America, with unyielding passion and zest. On the Road takes place from 1947-1950, with Sal being the alter ego of Jack Kerouac himself, and Dean being the novel’s characterisation of Kerouac’s friend Neal Cassady. Divorced, living with his aunt and existing in a failing ideological American Dream, Sal’s life changes when he meets Dean Moriarty, who is “tremendously excited with life” and prepares Sal for a “life on the road”.

Kerouac was hesitant to define exactly what ‘beat’ represented, but after reading On the Road, you get a pretty good summation of the generation’s central agendas. A rejection of materialism and conventionalism, unlimited experimentation and the only ideology being one of life and exuberance, ‘beat’ encapsulated the hedonistic, poetic and creative lifestyle Sal and Dean experience in this novel. ‘Beat’ seeps out of every page in this novel – it hits you in the face with unapologetic vigour. Kerouac explicitly makes the Beat Generation’s way of life the novel’s foremost presentation of an ideal existence. Each character is almost prophesised to be a defining character in this bohemian movement. Ed Dunkel is “an angel of a man”, Dean is a “real Gene Autry – trim, thin-hipped, blue-eyed, with a real Oklahoma accent” and a “holy con-man”, Carlo Marx is a “sorrowful poetic con-man” and Mary Lou is a sexual adventurer and is both condemned and praised as a “whore”. On the Road is filled with characters that embody what it means to be Beat – from wretched poverty to complete abandonment and living in the moment.

While Sal is the novel’s main character, it is Dean who appears to be the leader and Sal, is much more of a follower – filled with respect, awe and admiration for his hero. Dean meanders through life, trying to keep both his wife Mary-Lou and his lover Camille happy and along with Sal; he experiences the highs and lows of twentieth-century America. Bob Dylan said this book changed his life and it’s hard to articulate just how poignant, moving and important this novel really is. Reading this book for the umpteenth time this summer, took me on the road with Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty – experiencing New York’s jazz scene, celebrating Christmas in Testament with Sal and his family, and inhaling the life and culture which pours out of every American city from Denver to San Francisco.

On the Road is not only my favourite book of all time, but it’s an absolutely essential read for anyone who is interested in reading a classic. It’s a social commentary on twentieth-century America and Kerouac’s narrative is visionary and inspiring. It’s about living in the here and now and exploiting life’s opportunities for everything they have to offer. The sense of freedom and possibility for each character makes On the Road a riveting page turner and a gripping story. It’s no surprise that it has finally been made into a movie, but I urge everyone to read the novel before Kerouac’s tale becomes sacrificed on the altar of Hollywood commercialism.

Sal travels across America with Dean, but not always. However, the novel is at its strongest when these two are together – soaring towards and consuming the American landscape, which is described beautifully and in an unparalleled style by Jack Kerouac. When Gilbert Millstein described On the Road as a “major novel”, it’s likely he was holding back from sounding overly didactic and far be it for me to preach, but Kerouac’s second novel is a masterpiece which exists in its own consciousness, consuming Americana, sex, jazz and poetry at its own, generation defining Beat pace.


4 thoughts on “Book Review: On the Road by Jack Kerouac – Jamie Tuohy

  1. Brilliantly written review Jamie – you’ve brought the book alive and cut right to the heart of its meaning. I’m apprehensive about the film – I’ll wait until I’ve read some reviews before I write it off!

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