Review of ‘On the Road’ by Jack Kerouac

I didn’t dig this book, man, although I respect it as a classic work of the Beat Generation, as a massive influence on popular culture, as a fictionalised autobiography and as a portrait of America in the late 1940s. It must have felt so fresh, edgy and daring on its publication in 1957.

Maybe it’s the kind of book, like The Catcher in the Rye or Wuthering Heights, which makes the biggest impression if you first read it as a teen. If that’s the case, I’m too old to be reading On the Road for the first time!

Sal Paradise (who represents Kerouac himself) and Dean Moriarty (who is Neal Cassady) are the main characters. There isn’t much of a plot. It’s basically a bunch of annoying, irresponsible people travelling around the States and Mexico, starving themselves, stealing cigarettes, looking for ‘kicks’ but generally having a miserable time unless they find a jazz club. A meandering tale of hitchhikers and hobos, dirt and drugs, wildness and woe. The male characters’ perspectives are horribly sexist and homophobic. Their attitudes towards race, while possibly enlightened for the era (this was well before the Civil Rights Act), now make uncomfortable reading.

The writing style reminded me of panning for gold – occasionally among the dullness is a shining literary nugget, beautifully phrased, quotable and thought-provoking. I felt that this didn’t make up for the more objectionable qualities of the book.

I don’t recommended On the Road – maybe the idea of it has more appeal than the experience of reading it – but if you’re curious, then see if you dig it, man.

12 thoughts on “Review of ‘On the Road’ by Jack Kerouac”

  1. Thank you for your most insightful, clear review. Over the years I have tried to read this book, first in the ’60s when I was going through my rebellious, “hippie” (according to family) stage and later as an English lit major and later English teacher. You struck a nerve with your description of the writing style as “panning for gold”. I just couldn’t finish it, although I probably read it all, just not at once and always in bits and pieces. It was/is one of those books that seemed to crop up in my life as a “must read,” so I’d try again. Even bought several copies over the years! Sigh. You say what I couldn’t, so thank you. I’ve let this must read go!

    1. You’re welcome! I know I’m not the only one who felt this way but it can be awkward to criticise a book that means a lot to many people – better to be honest however! You are right, time to let this one go and admit it’s not the book for you. I certainly don’t regret reading it – and it was probably overdue – never again, though. Thank you for your comment, glad my review was helpful.

    1. I highly doubt I will read any more of his work. Yes I agree about the characters, I suppose they are embodying the new spirit of those times – breaking free of convention etc – but they are not at all likeable. Thanks! 🙂

  2. It’s on my Classics Club list, though I’m not expecting to dig it either. It feels like one of those books everyone *should* have read, but I think you’re right that it probably worked better at the time and for people of the right age.

    1. Well I guess it is worth a read just to see what the fuss is about… I’ll be interested to know what you think 🙂

  3. I hated it, I think it was one of the last books I forced myself to finish before adopting a read 100 pages then DNF if I’m not enjoying it. Maybe it’s because I read it so many decades after publication but the characters just seemed so selfish and pretentious.

    1. I can understand that – it’s only a short book but a struggle to get through! You’re right about the characters. I’m sure they seemed that way at the time of publication too but maybe it was a refreshing change or something, I don’t know. I don’t think time has been kind to this book. That’s a sensible policy you have now for a DNF, no point trying to plough through a book you’re hating!

  4. I struggled with this book. I did finish it, I think, but I had to force myself. That was the last time I finished reading a book I disliked. “Never again,” I said.

    However, I did enjoy reading your thoughts on it. I’m always curious to know what people think of it.

    1. Yes this book seems very divisive! Thanks. You’re right, it’s not good to force yourself to read a book when you don’t like it.

  5. On the Road was the book that, for me, opened a door into American literature. I was immediately enraptured by Kerouac’s free-flowing prose style or ‘Bop Prosody’ as it came to be known. I subsequently relished his many other books, including The Dhama Bums, Desolation Angels, The Subterraneans and the wonderful Lonesome Traveller, a collection of short sketches. His works subsequently led me to read the great works of Thomas Wolfe, such as Look Homeward Angel and Of Time and the River; vast sprawling books that elate one’s senses with a prose suited to the more romantically attuned. I also became drawn to other American literary giants such as Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald and the father of American literature, Mark Twain. Needless to say, through Kerouac’s works I was also began reading the those of his Beat contemporaries, including Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and John Clellon Holmes (who, incidentally wrote the first Beat novel, which predated On the Road by some five years).

    I can, however, see and understand why many readers cannot connect with Kerouac’s books. Firstly, if you are looking for a beginning, middle and end, then forget Kerouac. His works can often seem garrulous, verbose and rambling. Thomas Wolfe, who Kerouac admired and who played an instrumental part in his literary style, was also accused of his “swollen rhetoric”. Furthermore, the Beats were extremely narcissistic and obsessed with one another, which is why so many real life characters feature in Kerouac’s books under various pseudonyms. Many are also unlikeable and, in some cases, seen shallow and misogynistic.

    Like Thomas Wolfe before him, he will probably never gain the literary status of becoming a ‘great’ writer because he never truly wrote anything that could be considered original fiction; all his works were essentially autobiographical or semi-autobiographical. As with Hemingway, he goes in and out of fashion. Many people seem to have become more interested in the man than his works. Moreover, he is one of those writers that many will have heard of but never actually read.

    1. Thank you for your informative and thoughtful response. I prefer to read literature as fiction (and yes I’m traditional and want the beginning/middle/end) without looking too much into the author’s personal life, no wonder that reading Kerouac does not inspire me. I don’t regret reading this book at all but I wouldn’t be inclined to read any more of his work. Trying not to generalise but I think that his work has tended to resonate more with male readers and it feels like On the Road at least is intended for a male audience. I am yet to read any Thomas Wolfe but I will certainly check him out and it’s always interesting to read what influenced other writers.

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