February 16, 2013

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

Much has been written about this famous book, which I'd heard about all my life but never read. Lucille recommended it, and I thought it was amazing, most particularly for its style, and also for its illumination of the beatnik subculture of the late 40s that I had never understood.

On the Road is autobiographical, describing Kerouac and his buddies (who include Alan Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs) on their travels across the U.S. as part of the Beat Generation (a term Kerouac coined). Kerouac changes the names; he himself as the narrator is Sal Paradise and the other main character is Dean Moriarty, based on the real-life Neal Cassady.

To illustrate Kerouac's style, I'll quote from a wild scene at a jazz club in San Francisco:

The behatted tenorman was blowing at the peak of a wonderfully satisfactory free idea, a rising and falling riff that went from "EE-yah!" to a crazier "EE-de-lee-yah!" and blasted along to the rolling crash of butt-scarred drums hammered by a big brutal Negro with a bullneck who didn't give a damn about anything but punishing his busted tubs, crash, rattle-ti-boom, crash. Uproars of music and tenorman had it and everybody knew he had it. Dean was clutching his head in the crowd, and it was a mad crowd. They were all urging the tenorman to hold it and keep it with cries and wild eyes, and he was raising himself from a crouch and going down again with his horn, looping it up in a clear cry above the furor. A six-foor skinny Negro woman was rolling her bones at the man's hornbell and he just jabbed it at her, "Ee! ee! ee!"

Kerouac himself made a comparison between his writing style and the style of Impressionist painters who tried to create art through direct observation. In1950 he wrote in the "Essentials of Spontaneous Prose" about the form he was developing that reflected the improvisational fluidity of jazz.

The book is about jazz, enjoying everything, sex, drugs, and finding meaning in life. Kerouac once said "It was really a story about two Catholic buddies roaming the country in search of God. And we found him."

I had to read this book fast as it couldn't be renewed, but my thought is I will buy it so I can re-read the best parts whenever I want to. And there's a 2012 Francis Ford Coppola movie that I can't wait to see.

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