When I sat down sometime last year with my copy of Blue Highways and decided that I was going to begin a reading project that would be all about traveling (in one way or another), I knew I was going to save one particular book for the end, and that was On The Road. Anyone who actually knows me probably won’t be surprised that I had never read Jack Kerouac’s seminal novel, and also won’t be surprised to hear me say that I wouldn’t have ever read it had I not committed to reading it for this self-imposed project.
Not having read it was probably also reason enough to turn in my “English teacher card”; after all, isn’t On The Road up there with The Great Gatsby, The Catcher in the Rye, Beowulf, and the works of William Shakespeare in the canon of Books Every English Teacher Has Read and Memorized? But not to worry, I remedied that issue by going to my local public library and checking it out (I could have downloaded it to my Kindle, which would be much more “21st Century Skills,” but the library is free), then set out to read it while I was on vacation in Virginia Beach for a few days. I was looking forward to it because I was checking a “vital” book off of my list, I was reading another book wherein people traveled, and I was finally going to see what the big deal is.
I barely got through it.
Now don’t get me wrong, I see what the big deal is about On The Road. It encapsulates the spirit of the Beats and has the feel of the consummate free spirit; it’s one of the most important works for a creative non-conformist to read and know. But it’s a complete train wreck. There’s not much of a plot, and the point seems to be that there isn’t really a point. Which I get, and that’s not my problem with the novel (and shouldn’t be–how many movies do I like where there really is no point or plot?).
The problem is that it’s not a very likable book. Kerouac’s narrator is Sal Paradise, who clearly is supposed to be himself, and he chronicles a few years’ worth of traveling back and forth across the country as well his encounters with several people, many of whom are stand-ins for important Beat writers. Sal, as a narrator, is a Nick Carroway to the Jay Gatsby that is Dean Moriarity (IRL Neal Cassaday), a free-wheeling guy who has women on each coast and seems to be all about throwing caution to the wind. Much like Gatsby, Dean is completely full of shit and we as an audience can see right through him, whereas our narrator cannot. Unlike Nick, Sal isn’t very likable. He doesn’t seem to have the voice of a common observer or make any effort to ground us in any sort of reality.
And seriously, he’s a schmuck. So, by the time I got to the point where he realized that Dean was full of shit, I simply didn’t give a shit. That’s probably pretty harsh and maybe my evaluation of this book has less to do with its quality and more to do with my being the wrong age and having the wrong mindset for this sort of thing–more mindset than age, because I never had such a pointless view of things. Thankfully, I’m not ending the reading project with this book. There’s two more entries left and one more book to read.