Friday, 15 February 2008
Book Review - On The Road by Jack Kerouac
Why Kerouac still matters
Upon publication in 1957, ‘On The Road’ immediately made Jack Kerouac a literary star. For the rest of his life he would be called upon as the mouthpiece of a generation to explain the ‘beat’ phenomenon, of which his book was celebrated as the greatest achievement. It had been written in three weeks in 1951, on twelve-foot rolls of taped together drawing paper, in one single-spaced paragraph. Kerouac is said to have typed it furiously fast, shunning breaks in the narrative so as to capture the sense propulsion that carries the reader through his heady tales of life on the road.
The coming together of the book may have climaxed in this three-week fit of typing, but its roots went back much further. ‘On The Road’, Kerouac’s second novel, began to find its way onto paper in 1951 following several years of travels. Kerouac features in the novel as ‘Sal Paradise’, a lonely young writer who chases his friend, Dean Moriarty, across the continent in search of the American dream; much of the prose is autobiographical. Even today, hundreds of young beat-fanatics can be found strung across America’s highways, as they hitch their way about the country, following in Kerouac’s well-trodden step.
However the most remarkable elements of this strange, furious prose are not to be found in its roadtrip plot. Kerouac’s travelling tales succeed each other with such rapidity that the reader barely has time to digest each event before being pushed back on the road to the next adventure. Instead of pauses for explanations, the narrative is shot through with sleepless lunacy that conveys a heady lust for life and its limits, whilst retaining undercurrents of sadness that colour the fruitless search for unlimited freedom with a quiet sense of frustration.
Far from being solely representative of the first footloose youngsters of the fifties, ‘On The Road’ captures with fierce intensity the tendency of the modern world to induce existential paranoia in each of us, as we fail to find reason in the unpredictable turns that life can take. Yet Kerouac never lapses into self-pity at the human predicament. ‘On The Road’ instead resonates with an indelible optimism that captures with rare beauty ‘the raggedy madness and riot of our actual lives’.