Fifty Years On
The boulevard of broken dreams, and Sal Paradise.
Sep 24, 2007, Vol. 13, No. 02 • By TED GIOIA
Of course, the novel breaks every rule taught in Creative Writing 101. Kerouac lets rich incidents pass in a few sentences that other writers would build into entire chapters. Key characters--Dean Moriarty's father, hustler Elmer Hassel--are mentioned repeatedly, but never appear. Episodes do not build toward a final conclusion, but merely follow one another in haphazard sequence. Yet all these deviations from standard procedure enhance the potent realism and vital flow of the narrative.
I also detected a conservative streak in Kerouac that I had missed before. Commentators tend to forget this side of the Beat Generation icon--his admiration for William F. Buckley Jr.; his surprising claim that Billy Graham was a living exponent of Beat philosophy; his impatience with the counter-culture. And for all the glamour of his image as an incessant traveler, -Kerouac spent most of his life living with his mother.
Squares have reason to rejoice: The King of Hip was one of them!
These traditional sentiments surface from time to time. Even the narrator's name, Salvatore Paradise, points to a type of redemption not found on the American highways and byways. Spiritual matters are mentioned as often as intoxicants in the text. Paradise increasingly distances himself from his uninhibited friend Moriarty as the novel proceeds, and the tension between the two emerged as a key theme on my rereading.
"All these years I was looking for the woman I wanted to marry," Paradise relates midway through the book. "I couldn't meet a girl without saying to myself, What kind of wife would she make? . . . This can't go on all the time--all this franticness and jumping around."
John Leland, in Why Kerouac Matters, effectively explores these complexities. At times, Leland is a bit too glib--as when he offers a checklist of self-help tips drawn from On the Road, such as "stay on schedule" or "plan ahead, but improvise." But his book is insightful and offers a valuable corrective to the stereotypes that have clouded our vision of this seminal author.
Leland convinced me that (contrary to his subtitle) On the Road cannot be reduced to a list of lessons for life. Kerouac constantly subverts every ideology and timetable he proposes, and there is no rule or bit of advice offered in On the Road that is not trashed somewhere else in the book.
Yet this constant shifting is what keeps this novel vital after five decades, and allows us to return to it again and again, continuing to find new facets in the story. If Kerouac had been only a Beat Generation hipster, his book would be as outdated as the hula hoop or the Edsel. But he probed much deeper into the realities of life on the road, and the false allure of his elusive destinations.
Jack Kerouac's brutal honesty gives On the Road enough gas to keep going for at least another 50 years, and probably much longer.
Ted Gioia is the author, most recently, of The History of Jazz and Work Songs.