Monday, September 17, 2012

the last book I read

On The Road by Jack Kerouac.

Before we start, chalk up another one for the list entitled Books I Bought Like A Gazillion Years Ago And Started But Never Finished Before Finally Getting My Thumb Out Of My Arse And Finishing Them, as previously alluded to a couple of times before on this blog, though just as I forgot Good as Gold when chalking up The Unbearable Lightness Of Being, I in turn forgot about this one when chalking up Good As Gold. Which means that while aside from the heavyweight duo of Pride and Prejudice and Anna Karenina (heavyweight in literary significance terms in both cases, and in actual physical terms in the latter case) I can't think of any others, that's not to say there might not be a couple more knocking around somewhere. I think this one was purchased in the big book-buying splurge I perpetrated when leaving my summer job at the Town Bookseller in Newbury in a last desperate cashing-in of my 30% staff discount, which means that it's taken me something like 22 years to get round to reading it all the way through.

So, anyway - Sal Paradise is an aspiring writer, scraping by in New York on the remnants of a military pension and handouts from his aunt, when he meets wild and crazy guy Dean Moriarty, a charismatic and unrestrained free spirit who persuades him to come on a road trip across the USA via Denver to San Francisco. After various crazy adventures Sal eventually ends up staying in and around Los Angeles for a while before rustling up the bus fare and heading back to New York.

Some months later Sal is with some relatives in Virginia when Dean gatecrashes the party with his wife Marylou (one of several he has in various parts of the country) and persuades Sal off on another trip, firstly to deliver some furniture for Sal's brother and bring Sal's aunt back to Virginia from New York, and then off across the country again to San Francisco, via New Orleans this time. Despite all the jazz-soundtracked nightlife and the crazy cats they meet on the way, Sal is eventually disillusioned by Dean's increasingly erratic behaviour and returns once again to New York.

The third trip starts a bit differently as Sal, bored and friendless in New York, sets off by bus to Denver to seek out Dean. They wangle a deal to deliver a new car to some guy (who may or may not be a mobster) in Chicago, and - just as the guy who entrusted the car to two crazy drunken bums should have foreseen - rag the arse off it, bounce it in and out of several ditches on the way and generally turn up in Chicago a couple of days early with the tyres on fire and the whole thing a smoking clapped-out wreck.

Finally, jaded with all this shuttling about between American cities, Sal, Dean and their new buddy Stan Shephard get hold of another car and go careering off across the border into Mexico, an exciting world of hot weather, spectacular scenery, cheap dope and accommodating underage prostitutes. After going hog-wild for a bit, as one would, they rock up in Mexico City, where Sal picks up a nasty dose of dysentery and is laid low for a while, whereupon Dean abandons him to head back north for more adventures. Chastened by this, and also lured both by the prospect of making a proper living from his writing and settling down with his new lady friend, Sal decides to knock the travelling on the head, leaving Dean to continue his wild adventures without him.

Kerouac famously based On The Road on his real-life travelling experiences, but had to change the names of the protagonists - Dean Moriarty, for instance, is a thinly-disguised Neal Cassady, just as Sal Paradise is Kerouac himself, and various other famous counterculture figures like Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs play minor roles as well. Kerouac's claim of having knocked the book out in one big stream of consciousness over a three-week period seems to have been largely bogus, though.

To be honest it's a book probably best read in one's late teens, perhaps shortly after reading The Catcher In The Rye, as the themes of restlessness and longing for some ill-defined better and more exciting existence free of the stifling conformity and humbuggery of the older generation are very similar. To the more jaded eye the wild and crazy adventurers just conduct a series of largely unsatisfactory circular trips, constantly short of money and constantly alternating between feeling stifled and restless when at home and yearning for companionship and stability while on the road. The book is also suffused with Kerouac's love of jazz, and the newfangled bebop of the 1940s and 1950s in particular; I have to say that I've always found jazz mostly to be either plinky-plonkingly banal or noisily impenetrable depending on the particular genre (bebop would generally fall into the latter category), so Kerouac's writings on the subject, while evidently reflecting a deep love of the music, didn't do much for me. I think perhaps it's just hard to take jazz seriously after The Fast Show's merciless skewering of its self-importance. Niiiice.

What On The Road clearly also is is a thinly-veiled love story between the narrator and his fabulous unfettered male hero, in exactly the same way as The Leaves on Grey, Demian, The Great Gatsby and Le Grand Meaulnes (which Sal reads on one of his lengthy cross-country bus journeys) were. Interestingly in real life it was apparently Cassady and Ginsberg who were actually lovers.

The multiple journeys described in On The Road would seem to lend themselves perfectly to a map illustrating all the various destinations, but oddly such a thing doesn't seem to exist - here's an interactive map of the first trip, and here's one in Kerouac's own hand from the excellent Strange Maps. Slightly more tangentially, here's a series of remarkable graphical representations of the novel's text by artist Stefanie Posavec. [Postscript: here are a couple of maps - of varying degrees of clarity - showing all four trips.]

Finally, it just so happens that a film based on the book is due for release shortly. I can't make a recommendation either way regarding the film, but - for all its seeming like a bit of a period piece now with its talk of real gone cats digging each other and the like - it's a book you should probably have on your shelves. Just to be clear, that also means that you should read it, rather than just sit on it for 22 years.

On The Road also features in the Time magazine list of 20th century novels that's been mentioned here a few times before.

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