Book Review – On The Road

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

I purchased this book at City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco over 15 years ago on  a business trip that coincided with a get together with one of my oldest friends, Jeff.  He knew about the history of this bookstore, and once I learned, it seemed appropriate that this is the book I would buy there.  I still have the receipt pressed in the pages and I can’t read the book without thinking of Jeff.

Which is a good thing, because the book itself is a forced read for me.  It isn’t that Kerouac’s prose isn’t engaging – it is.  There are moments when he goes on these wild flights of imaginative/drug-induced fancy, carrying the reader along with the sway of a trumpet in some tiny jazz club in Chicago or San Francisco.  His description of his trip into Mexico palpates.  It’s difficult to breathe at times, imagining the density of the water and insect-filled air.  

His descriptions of various locales are fascinating as well.  I’m sure that there could be an interesting tour program just to take people down the roads and small towns and big cities that Kerouac describes.  Having seen a great deal more of the country prior to this reading than when I first read it, those descriptions more often ring bells and conjure images that dance with Kerouac’s own descriptions and enrich the overall reading.

But literary talent aside, it’s hard to get past the fact that there isn’t a single empathetic character in this book.  The hero, Dean Moriarity, is self-obsessed to a dangerous degree.  Self-obsessed and self-destructive, yet these are the qualities that people seem to envy most about him.  Kerouac’s personification, Sal, isn’t quite to the same degree as Dean, but clearly leans that way.  

The illusion of greater understanding, greater depth, greater interaction through the use of stimulants and drugs is fascinating.  The characters are constantly trying to “dig” the people that they see around them.  They want to understand them, feel what they feel, see what they see – yet their own narcissistic obsessions keep this from ever happening.  Not even between Dean and Sal is there any real meaningful building of relationship.  They feed off of one another’s energy, but their actual interactions and moments of genuinely relating are scarce at best.

You can see the roots of our current culture of narcissism here.  A narcissism that justifies every indulgence as deserved and appropriate, but has tossed away the responsibility, the delusion that such indulgences are appropriate for some because those few are capable of interpreting and translating those experiences for the larger masses.  Artists are essentially elevated in status so that they should experience all things and relate them to others.  But if anything is clear in this book, it is that nothing is ever related to others, and that perhaps nothing can be.  We all must indulge, because our mediums and seers are rendered incapable of describing the very things they seek to experience for us.  

Our culture is certainly one where “kicks” are paramount.  Everyone deserves everything.  By logical extension, if you don’t have something that you want, you’re being deprived.  Who stands in your way?  Who prevents you?  That person should not be tolerated.  Your whims are gods, your consumption is your worship of Self.  Do you have talent?  Ability?  A strong work ethic?  No matter!  We are all entitled to everything!  

No.  We aren’t entitled to everything.  Frankly even what we do enjoy and have is a blessing we don’t deserve.  But this is very hard to remember.

I live in one of the most beautiful – and expensive – places in the United States.  Perhaps even the world.  I drive by mansions and estates regularly.  And after a while, it’s easy to think that’s what I really need.  That’s what is reasonable.  Why should I struggle?  There must be an easy way to get all of this beautiful stuff beyond working for it, because I will work until I die and still never be able to have any of this.  How fair is that?  

The temptation to pretend to live that life, to live above means on credit cards and lines of credit must be overpowering for some people.  Thank God (and my parents) that I don’t find those approaches reasonable.  So at the end of the day I’m brought back to reality and gratefulness for all that I have, because it truly and literally is far more than I deserve.  

On the Road is considered an American classic and probably rightly so.  It’s a good read, but not necessarily a pleasant one.  It provides a fascinating glimpse into the psyche of someone who idolizes the self, even if that self is embodied more fully in other people.  That’s something it’s helpful to understand, and in better digging this mindset, we can perhaps more clearly see it at play in the advertising and culture around us today.  

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