It’s impossible to talk about this book without trying to establish what ‘Beat’ is. An exalted exhaustion, a beatific vision, a direct line to God enjoyed by the blessed in heaven. It’s manifest in kickwriting; ‘writing only what kicks you and keeps you overtime awake from sheer mad joy’. Spontaneous prose reflected in its soundtrack, ‘Let’s hear no more about jazz critics and those who wonder about bop: - I like my whiskey wild, I like Saturday night in the shack to be crazy, I like the tenor to be woman-mad, I like things to GO and rock and be flipped, I want to be stoned if I’m going to be stoned at all, I like to be gassed by a back-alley music….’ Beat was a movement, and a generation, and On The Road became the manifesto. It pointed the alienated, restless and dissatisfied towards a quest that began on the road. What better companion on your own road trip?
While the road trip mapped out in this book is akin to some kind of twisted spiritual quest for the American Dream, the specific locations become less significant. It’s the personal inner journeys and the ceaseless nature of the prose that captures the kind of reasons to hit the road. Sal Paradise is the autobiographical protagonist but it’s the other main character, the maniacal prophet of experience, Dean Moriarty, that drives the story. Picture that friend who’s a real bad influence but you’re kind of happy to go along with them because you’re bored with playing it safe and staying in your comfort zone. You crave the unhinged freedom they seem to have.
Without really intending to, Kerouac challenged the complacency and prosperity of postwar America. It’s a sentiment that still seems to resonate, the escapism just too contagious. He also packaged these challenging sentiments in a new way. Rumour has it that Kerouac taped together twelve-foot-long sheets of drawing paper and fed them into his typewriter as a continuous roll, his typing described as a rolling thunder. Paragraphs be damned, the book hardly gives you a chance to catch a breath, let alone a chapter break to put it down.
Culturally, this book was huge, capturing a feeling of consciousness. Pulling out of the day-to-day and onto the open road holds an appeal that doesn’t seem limited to any time or place. The breakneck speed of this novel means it should always be riding on your dash when you pull out onto the freeway.
“[...]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 centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”
― Jack Kerouac, On the Road