This book's influence on me can't be overstated. I took a class on the Beat Generation in tenth grade, which is right when all the kicks seem most dazzling, and I thought yes! This is the crazy bohemian life! And I spent the next ten years trying to be a Beatnik. I hitchhiked from Atlanta to Philadelphia just because according to this book that's the sort of thing one does. No one really hitchhiked, already, in those days; old hippies would pick me up looking bewildered. Well, and racist truckers, too, so some things never change. I would have given my left nut for some benzedrine, or barring that for someone at least to explain to me what the fuck it was. (I still don't know.) I even replayed Dean Moriarty's shoplifting scene note-for-note. That's how seriously I took this book.
So you can understand that, as a 38-year-old dude who says things like "Man, it's 11, I'm beat" and means "tired," I was not at all keen to revisit this. It's a young man's book. Oh God, getting drunk and talking about the snake of the world...remember when that felt dangerous?
But it's not totally silly, actually - I mean, it is, but not all silly things are pointless and there's nothing wrong with a snake of the world, intrinsically.
<!-- And to make matters worse, I'd just slogged through nearly half of Tropic of Cancer, which is terrible, and at 38 I'm aware that On The Road is just another in a long tradition of bohemian literature going back at least as far as De Quincey. And I was afraid On The Road would turn out to be as pompous and careless as Tropic of Cancer turns out to be, just a guy masturbating his talent onto the face of the world, which makes a spectacle but does nobody any good.<br/>
But the thing with Tropic of Cancer is that Henry Miller is essentially an asshole, and Kerouac isn't. Kerouac is eager to please, to connect, and On The Road turns out to be much less annoying than I was afraid it would be. It's still a young man's book! Don't get me wrong! But it's...it's really kindof sweet. Kerouac doesn't have Miller's raging ego: he lets Dean Moriarty take center stage. (Imagine a world where Miller isn't the lead actor in his own drama!) On The Road is a sputtering grasp at the idea of the Great American Novel, and while it doesn't come anywhere near grabbing the raft, it's worth reading. -->
I see it now as a warning. Kerouac was hitting 30 when he wrote it, and you sense a desperation: "Where is my story?" You sense some manipulation, too. Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady) is a mentally unstable man, and I think the Beats used him for stories. I was inspired by him when I was young; now I feel a deep sadness for him. I see that filthy-bandaged thumb. Neither Kerouac nor Cassady lived to 50. I had a good time when I was young; I'm glad I've graduated to different kinds of good times now.
<!--I should say, Howl covers basically the same territory and is considerably better. All the things you can feel Kerouac striving for throughout On The Road...Ginsberg is trying just as hard, but he's achieving it in a wonderful, authoritative way. The sense you get from Kerouac is, "Is this good? Am I doing it? Have I got it right?" And your answer is yes, dude, nice work. But here's what Ginsberg says: "HERE IT IS." -->
But either way. All you beatniks out there, go out and hitchhike and be broke and desperate in the vastness of the world. It's a kick.