I finished On The Road by Jack Kerouac this week. It is rated one of the top books in American literature and I could see why after reading it. There is a movie version of this coming out in August on DVD but honestly I can’t see how a movie could be done of this despite that great cast and director. More on that later.
A little background; There are actually two versions of this book. The one I read which was released in the late 1950s (although written a decade earlier) and the “Scroll” version. Kerouac typed the manuscript up on a scroll. He pasted pieces of paper together so he wouldn’t have to make paper changes in the typewriter (for you under -30 crowd, Google typewriter) and this is known as the scroll. He hammered it out in 3 weeks but it took a decade for a publisher to green-light it. Also, the original scroll version has the real names of the people (several which became famous in their own right). The one I read is the publisher version who out of their fear of libel suits made name changes and scratched the explicit sex from the text. Which ever version you pick up, in spite of terms used then and now, this reads like it was published yesterday. Time has not made it stale at all and Kerouac should be praised for that feat.
Kerouac is the guy who coined “Beat Generation” and the story is based on his real life adventures going cross-country, often hitching rides to get there. The same group of friends kept hanging out together or bumping into each other in cities like Denver or San Francisco. The characters are real, for instance Ginsberg and Neal Cassady are major figures. Cassady is one of those rare people in history that serves as muse. He is the character Dean in this book and he was also the inspiration for the main character in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (see the movie, Jack Nicholson’s best one ever and that says a lot).
The thing is I didn’t like the characters in this story but loved the story. The characters are fascinating (you won’t get bored) but are the type of people who show up to a party, look really interesting and cool to be around but once you hang with them a couple of times you find yourself pushing them out of your lives. And this happens in the story! A lot of friends get tossed by the wayside in this story. The reasons are simple. This group basically sponged off everyone around. Borrowing money from this person or that, maybe paying it back but probably not, or stealing food and cars and only feeling fulfilled when drunk or high. In a way there is a shallowness to their core that we all experience at some point but that most of us eventually choose to skirt past in the long-run. In real life, many of these characters including Kerouac died young and some of them expressed regrets over how drugs and booze had dictated the course of their lives.
What I liked though is the supporting characters. The people that they run into on the road were fascinating. It also says a lot about America for this story takes place in late 1940s right after WWII and at the end of the Great Depression. The poverty portrayed here was moving and the grit of the people admirable. I learned new terms from the era and about institutions like the Travel Bureau which use to be in every town but now no longer exist. This is a snapshot of America that is seldom seen and even less discussed.
The reason I couldn’t see this being a movie is because there are so many episodes, so many layers and characters over a 2 year span that there is no way to adequately cram it into a 2 hour movie. I will rent the movie but I am sure it will sell the story short.
In getting ready for my major road trip this was a great book to read. I’d never read it before and it dawned on me when I started how little the Beat Generation poets and authors are actually studied these days. I have been to many of the towns detailed in the story which made it even more compelling and if I go through them again on this trip, I am probably going to be scanning the streets going, “Yeah, Kerouac crashed on that bus bench right over there or hung out with migrant workers in the field over there.” This is a must read for anyone interested in recent America, the Beat Generation, or yearning for a good road trip.