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.