On the Road

Wednesday, 4 May 2011


Every time I read a review of Jack Kerouac’s iconic novel, On the Road, I feel unsatisfied. Reviewers and critics often go out of their way to explain the revolutionary style of the writing and its historical significance. Don’t get me wrong, this is important, but to me this is the topography of the novel, while what I want to read reviewed is its insides – its emotions. So this is not going to be one of those explanatory reviews that delves into the intricacies of the novel’s structure and historical context. Rather, I want to talk about the beating, raging, pumping heart of the book. This is, after all, what draws me back to it, time and again.


But then they danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue candlelight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’ (p. 7)

This is a passage that is ear-marked on nearly every copy of On the Road I own. It’s like the opposite of cynicism; a wild desire to consume everything and everyone. It’s what makes the novel so naked and vulnerable too. It’s a dangerous thing to lay down your expectations and violent optimism before the world. It exposes you in perhaps the most intimate way. I can’t help but relate this to the present: we’re more than willing these days to see people physically exposed in various nude magazines covers, and the like. Yet another celebrity or model baring all and praised for her ‘daring’. We are not, however, at all receptive to a different kind of exposure that reveals a non-tangible depth. This kind of exposure is often labelled ‘naive’ and ‘romantic’. We like our exposure quick, easy, comfortably cool and forgettable. No raging roman candles here. Have you also noticed how people are far more comfortable with small chatter, with carefully guarded revelations about themselves? What’s your job, how old are you, are you married, single, etc., etc., etc. The minute you go deeper, well, it’s like a full stop. While On the Road is often viewed as one of those novels that questions the idea of ‘the American Dream’, to me, it also interrogates the banality of mindless chatter at the background of our lives. It almost drowns this chatter out with its own ceaseless language of uncontrollable rambling sentences, laced with a desperate need to consume depth.


‘I’m hungry, I’m starving, let’s eat right now!’ – and off we’d rush to eat, whereof, as saith Ecclesiastes, ‘It is your portion under the sun.’ A western kinsman of the sun, Dean. Although my aunt warned me that he would get me in trouble, I could hear a new call and see a new horizon, and believe it at my young age; and a little bit of trouble or even Dean’s eventual rejection of me as a buddy, putting me down, as he would later, on starving sidewalks, and sickbeds – what did it matter? I was a young writer and I wanted to take off. Somewhere along the line I knew there’d be girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me. (p. 10)

Ah, this is so perfect, it almost doesn’t need anything to be said about it. Maybe it’s too romantic to empathise with this passage, but I really do. I keep waiting for ‘the pearl’ to be handed to me too, and I suspect a lot of other people secretly do as well. I guess this is what makes On the Road so memorable: in invites empathy with those secret, somewhat youthful expectations we have when we begin to sort out what kind of people we are. And it says it all in unflinching, unashamed black and white. This is comforting to me.


I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn’t know who I was – I was far from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I’d never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the crack of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn’t know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost. I was half-way across America, at the dividing line between the East of my youth and the West of my future, and maybe that’s why it happened right there and then, that strange red afternoon. (pp. 15-16)

I’ve often woken up feeling the same way. It’s a bizarre estrangement from yourself. For a split second, you really ‘forget’ who you are, and disassociate from your daily routines. They’re moments of gaps in your consciousness that remind you in a gentle sort of way that you really are not a static being, that it’s ok to feel messy and chaotic every once in a while. I love this novel because on every other page, I encounter a passage that makes me recognise myself. This book is like written permission to feel things that would otherwise have gone unnoticed, or that are perhaps too incongruous to acknowledge consciously.


In the whole eastern dark wall of the Divide this night there was silence and the whisper of the wind, except in the ravine where we roared; and on the other side of the Divide was the great Western Slope, and the big plateau that went to Steamboat Springs, and dropped, and led you to the Western Colorado desert and the Utah desert; all in the darkness now as we fumed and screamed in our mountain nook, mad drunken Americans in the mighty land. We were on the roof of America and all we could do was yell, I guess – across the night, eastward over the Plains, where somewhere an old man with white hair was probably walking toward us with the Word, and would arrive any minute and make us silent. (p. 49)

I can see Allen Ginsberg’s Howl in this passage, can’t you? I can see the beginning of a collection of minds on a quest. The Beat generation is often associated with breaking moral and social boundaries, and yet, the most important part of this transgression is what they are seeking on the other side of such boundaries: meaning, like a journey inward. Whenever I read Howl I feel like a perfect way to describe it would be to call it ‘the book of wanting’. It is all about wanting an unnamed something, while demolishing established beliefs and moral codes along the way. Kerouac’s On the Road is similarly about wanting; about stretching from one end of America to the next in search of something that will make words obsolete. Ironically, this is what compels Kerouac to write. I almost feel ridiculous saying I can relate to this search and this wanting, but I do. I do believe, without any trace of romanticism, that there is something that compels me to write, and every time I pick up On the Road, I feel like I am validated in some small way.


It was the saddest night. I felt as if I was with strange brothers and sisters in a pitiful dream. Then complete silence fell over everybody; where once Dean would have talked his way out, he now fell silent himself, but standing in front of everybody, ragged and broken and idiotic, right under the lightbulbs, his bony mad face covered with sweat and throbbing veins, saying, ‘Yes, yes, yes,’ as though tremendous revelations were pouring into him all the time now, and I am convinced they were, and others suspected as much and were frightened. He was BEAT – the root, the soul of Beautific. (p. 177)

Kerouac once described the meaning of ‘Beat’ as a mixture of exalted exhaustion and the religious state of ‘beautific vision’. If ever there was a passage that described this definition of ‘Beat’, it’s this one. I’m more interested in the idea of exalted exhaustion than in the religious connotations, because to me, it signifies a quiet triumph that is born from despair. I’m still trying to slowly unravel the idea of exalted exhaustion though, and poor Dean’s bony and vein-throbbing face always haunts my attempts.

I suspect there are way better reviews of On the Road than this one, but I feel oddly satisfied having expressed these thoughts. Has anyone read the novel, and if so, what did you think of it?

All images are by James Turnley. The minute I saw these photographs on his website and flickr account, I was struck by how they reminded me of On the Road. I can’t explain it, but they seem to have the same uncanny and depth-ridden tone as the novel. Thanks James, for letting me feature your amazing work!

The copy of the novel I've quoted from is: Jack Kerouac, On the Road, London: Penguin, 2000.

I promise this will be the last time you’ll see the word ‘competition’ on my blog for quite some time, but this is my final request to vote for me in the Sydney Writers' Centre blog competition. The voting closes tomorrow at 5pm, Sydney time. If you’ve already voted, I would really appreciate anyone helping me spread the word about this. Thanks so much everyone!


gracia said...

I read a worn copy of this book when I was in secondary school. I found it on my Mum's bookshelf. One slim volume with a pink spine. I read it and loved it. I have yet to revisit it. I think I'll keep it that way a little while longer. At present I am cloaked in the words of Graham Greene.

(Good luck! I think you ought win.)

Tana said...

After reading that wonderful review i had just one thought-wish to find the original book not a translated version that i`ve read, i think in the translated version some details were missed or interpreted in a little bit different way.
the voting closes tomorrow, so fast! but you remember my fingers are crossed :)! ♥

oktooca said...

third photo from the bottom is amazing.

If Jane said...

i read kerouac's on the road in highschool..thinking back...although not a literary genius...i still think and admire the value of the book as a document of his travels and i guess the writing structure at the time did create something...where kerouac is all passion for me....ginsberg is sound reason...however sound he could have been. do love the beats. ;))

s a m said...

On The Road is such an iconic novel - everytime I read something about it I feel sort of defensive. Reviews always remind me of the feeling I get when someone at the dinner table is telling a story about an experience I was there for - I always want to interrupt and say "But, I remember it likes this!".

I think everyone shares a different connection with it, a deep and personal one that seems like a story you actually experienced. (and it's maybe the reason other reviews have left you unsatisfied too.)

I love your take on it. It really touches the emotional core.

This blog is a special place for the thinkers.

Mon Petit Lapin said...

Thank you for this post, I read this a long time ago but you have reminded me of the feelings this book does stir up. I remember the first passage you mention really striking a cord with me too and leaving me with that intense feeling of being alive and wanting to find similar people who are here living in the world, in the present, in its beauty, but yes feeling that nagging label of 'romanticism'. I also recall an odd sadness that lingered with me reading this book that I was not always totally sure of; which is of course just one of the reasons I should read it again!

SJ said...

i read this book quite awhile ago but after reading this beautiful analysis of it, i think i might have to read it again with a new and better perspective on it.

learning about structure and the like was all we did in english in high school so thank you for picking out these beautiful excerpts and offering your thoughts on them, it's lovely to read.

Jess said...

Unfortunately I have not read this, or Allen Ginsberg, but I saw the movie Howl and I love learning about everything they went through. We also just watched a documentary on Pete Seeger. Its so crazy how people tried to "ban" them for their ideas that weren't so crazy after all!

mnemonique said...

o dear, these photos are great, they really resemble the text underneath them. I haven't read this novel, but after your post I must do it right now! I think I will like it!
Thank you for visiting my blog!

Niina said...

Hi, and good morning!
I read this a book a long time ago, perhaps I was too young because I thought "is this it". You made me second quess my adolescent judgment severely and I think I will have to read it again ;-) And thank you for your review, it was very interesting how you showed another angle on the book which everyone seems to have same things to tell about.

Rambling Tart said...

I have never read this book, Hila, but your thoughts about it are wonderful. I LOVE a story that helps me see me and enables me to emerge from the pages a stronger, steadier, more peaceful me.

Felix Curds said...

i've gotten so many opinions about 'on the road' but your passion for it is really swaying me to believe it is a damn worthwhile read. the photos you've paired this post with are really A+ too... btw, I'm glad you like my audio children;)

Jazzy E (hivenn) said...

really stunning. x hivenn

aldrin said...

My two favorite scenes in the novel: When their car gets stranded on the side of the road and they hear the sounds of dusk. And the other is when they're up in the mountains and Dean hands one of the native girls his watch in exchange for rock crystals. I really like the kindness in the words.

Marinka said...

The last time I read Kerouac was when I was in High School, and I can tell from the way you talk about it that you must have enjoyed that book a lot. You talk about it with the same passion as my teacher ^^ It's good to have your review too, I think I might read the book again now, I think I will understand it better at my age :)
So thanks for this post

CloudyKim said...

I've never read this book, but from the excerpts you gave and your interpretations of them, I definitely want to pick it up and read it for myself. I understand your feelings toward unsatisfying reviews- reviews are supposed to help you figure out if you want to read a book or, sometimes more importantly, see how a book and reader can intimately connect :)

amy said...

your blog is enchanting, inspiring, and informative. how do you manage to create such a recipe? beautiful.. x

hope to hear from you*
love amy ^.^

hila said...

gracia: seems like everyone read it in school :) I remember my high school english teacher telling me one day I'd understand it - and I did.

tana: ah yes, translation is always a tricky thing, and even when it's done well, something is always lost.

oktooca: I know, that's my favourite one too.

if jane: love the Beats too :) I don't think he's a writing 'genius' either, but there is something compelling and authentic about him.

sam: thanks, what a compliment! I think I just get defensive about most books, unless they're blatantly awful. It takes so much time and energy to write a book, I sort of don't see the point of going out of my way to say negative things about them, or reviewing ones I didn't enjoy.

mon petit lapin: yes, everyone seems to be afraid of the label 'romanticism' these days. I'd rather be romantic than cynical though :)

sj: ha, yes, I didn't want to repeat a high school experience here!

jess: I guess in the context of their times, the kind of topics they wrote about and the ideas they expressed were pretty radical.

mnemonique: my pleasure! and I hope you like the book.

niina: I'm sure other people have expressed similar thoughts about the novel - actually, I'm sure there are better reviews of it out there. I guess I just got bored of prosaic and explanatory reviews.

rambling tart: thank you, I hope you get to read it one day.

felix curds: of course I like your audio children! :) You should give the book a try - actually, I'd like to hear what you think of it.

hivenn: thanks!

aldrin: "I really like the kindness in the words": I couldn't have said it better myself.

Marinka: ha, so I sound like your teacher in high school, huh? :)

cloudykim: I think book reviews can sometimes have the same static structure to them - almost like there's a template for reviews or something. It can get a bit tedious at times.

amy: wow, thanks, that's sweet :)

Nana said...

What an awesome post, I'm sad I didn't read this earlier :) I really loved On the Road too, and weirdly I can remember taking a second to ponder about these same passages you did. However the ones I actually took the time to transcribe to the computer were different. Yours are much deeper XD

hila said...

thanks! glad you enjoyed it :)

andrea despot said...

I bookmarked this post to read after I re-read On the Road, which I recently did (and wrote a review about on my own blog which is far inferior to yours and which you'll probably hate...).

Anyway, I just wanted to say that while my review makes it sound like I hated the book, I did love the rhythm of it, the "beat" of it, the going and going and gone. I "got" it, I think. And I have to point out that I also underlined these lines in the book:

"i shambled after as i’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue candlelight pop"


"i could hear a new call and see a new horizon, and believe it at my young age"

In fact, all of the passages you quoted are very memorable to me and I especially love your part about empathizing with Sal and "the pearl."

The photographs you featured alongside the quotes are perfect, especially the one with the purple sky and repeated horizon. I know I'm missing the most important message of what the book is about, but my favorite parts were and still are the beautifully descriptive lines about the inky skies, purple skies, red skies, glittering cities, dense swamps, etc. The descriptions of the land and what it felt like to move across this continent are what spoke to me the most.