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.

10 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.

Leave a Reply