Written By Ciaran Dermott
“Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.”
Over 50 years after its first publication, the original counterculture novel still holds as much appeal to a young generation seeking to discover themselves as it did during the Mccarthy era of the United States. Ever gone on a road trip? Ever enjoyed a guitar solo? Ever smoked a joint? You probably owe the freedom to those things and much more to this book. Kicking off the ‘Beat Generation’ which led to the wider youth movement of the 1960s centred around psychedelics and rock music, On the Road was one of the first brave works of literature which dared to give a voice to a generation sick of the emptiness of capitalism and the strict conventions of traditional society.
“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.”
All of the characters in the novel are real people, written about via pseudonyms because of a copyright issue with the publisher, and all of the adventures of the protagonist Sal Paradise are autobiographical accounts of journeys actually undertook by a young Kerouac and his friends. Literary buffs will spot the great writers Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. as well as counterculture icon Neal Cassady lightly disguised as the crazy characters that make up Sal’s social calendar. For those completely new to beat history the novel serves as a great starting point in learning about the wild lives of the principle beat figures and their literature. As far as beat legends go, the tale of On the Road is one of the most sacred. Reportedly written in a three week Benzedrine rush by Kerouac just after he had returned from the road, the original manuscript was apparently sent to publishers unedited or drafted.
Writing without the restrictions of editing, re-drafting and editing again, it was an aesthetic principle Kerouac and the other beats took very seriously, and the effect of this is plain to see in the sincerity and zeal which saturates the prose throughout. Written to resemble the rhythm of jazz music, Sal’s narration pours out manically as he attempts to describe the poetry in every person, event and place that he sees. From the novels beginning, in which he is introduced to vivacious womanising cowboy Dean Moriarty amongst the writers and lowlifes of New York in the late 40s, Sal’s life becomes a hectic rush of cross country travelling, all night parties, spiritual discovery and be-bop. Rushing towards the sunset in Dean’s Hudson as the two drink, smoke cigarettes and discuss the true nature of the darkest corners of the human soul, and how to express it in their poetry, Sal pushes the limits of human consciousness to the fringes of felt experience as he speaks to bums in the desert beneath starry skies, dances ecstatically in jazz clubs in San Francisco, falls in love with Mexican field worker’s, drinks wine with poets in Los Angeles and then haunts the lonely streets of California looking for meaning, chases love and literature across train tracks and cityscapes in a desperate bid to discover who he is, and what there is for a generation not interested in conforming to the establishment.
“I realized these were all the snapshots which our children would look at someday with wonder, thinking their parents had lived smooth, well-ordered lives and got up in the morning to walk proudly on the sidewalks of life, never dreaming the raggedy madness and riot of our actual lives, our actual night, the hell of it, the senseless emptiness.”
This is a white knuckle thrill ride through an underground America where the hippie movement has not yet gone mainstream. But it is also an intelligent piece of work, which sets the groundwork for civil and gay rights as well as questioning its own spiritual premise through a commentary which is not afraid to dispute the carefree existence the protagonist seems to enjoy. Culminating in fever and drugs in a Mexico City whorehouse, Kerouac shows that there is a dark side to going out ‘on the road’ which needs to be addressed.
Still socially relevant, On the Road is as important to the literary canon as it was at the point of its ground-breaking debut. For many young people, and writers, the novel is a rite of passage, and it continues to open youth up to the spiritual, literary side of self-exploration and adventure in a world where these things have been defined, repackaged and sold back to us with the meaning removed. The novel is not only a kind of new age bible, it’s also an important historical artefact, one that shows us how the society that we live in today was born.
“Sal, we gotta go and never stop going ’till we get there.’
‘Where we going, man?’
‘I don’t know but we gotta go.”