Sometimes I think Sal Paradise was right
Boys and girls in America
Have such a sad time together
--The Hold Steady, “Stuck Between Stations”
The way I felt about this book before reading it was pretty similar to the way I felt about Catcher in the Rye: It’s such a hallowed tome for so many people, especially college kids, that I was wary to sit down and read it. I’m suspicious of popular things; that’s who I am. With Catcher in the Rye I was rewarded with a book that exceeded all the expectations I had for it, with On the Road, my expectations were pretty much spot on.
On the Road is a story not about one road trip, but about several—I think there’s roughly four or five, each one corresponding to a different “book.” There’s something amazing and fascinating about it, the way that, in essence, it is a day-by-day account of three formative years in Kerouac’s life, compiled in copious notes and then written down in a “creative explosion” that took only three weeks. It’s hard to tell, but I’d guess that there’s more truth to it than fiction; all the characters in the book are people Kerouac knew. Kerouac himself is narrator Sal Paradise, but the focus of much of the book belongs to Dean Moriarty, the analogue of hipster-king Neal Cassady. It’s the whims of Moriarty, who is a fickle, half-crazed pseudo-intellectual who moves from place to place and wife to wife without thought, that really drive the events of the book. Moriarty is a sort of god-figure to Paradise, who admires his impulsiveness and raw human nature, but throughout the book Paradise has to confront the fact that both Moriarty and their adventures are in some ways failures that cannot possibly live up to Paradise’s hopes for them.
There are some heartbreakingly beautiful scenes in this book; I am particularly fond of the final trip in which Sal and Dean venture to Mexico City and end up lost in a sort of marijuana-fueled haze. However, in between those heartbreakingly beautiful scenes, there is a gross amount of tedium. I suppose that is, after all, real life, but it makes for a really frustrating book. Truman Capote famously dissed Kerouac’s style by saying, “That’s not writing, that’s typing,” but that doesn’t quite pinpoint the huge flaw with this book: Even at only 300 pages it’s a lumbering monster that never much answers the question why we ought to care about the minutia of the life of Sal Paradise and his jackass friend. Whereas Catcher reads so breezily that you could finish it in a matter of hours, reading On the Road can be like trying to wade through pudding.