Review: On the Road

In Arts & Entertainment

If you’re planning on taking a summer road trip, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road is a must-read before you pack your bags. The 1957 novel is a timeless tale of two friends, Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, who share a zest for life and love of the open road, where possibilities are endless.

Perhaps the most enticing aspect of On the Road is that it, and its characters, are based on Kerouac’s real life experiences from road trips he took with his famous friends of the Beat Generation, known as the “Beatniks” – writers Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs. From 1947 to 1950, the Beatniks took three road trips – from New York to California and back; from New York to New Orleans to San Francisco and from New York to Denver to Mexico.

The overall theme of the novel – expressing one’s free will and appreciation for life – is enough to keep you turning the pages faster than crazy Moriarty drove Paradise’s old jalopy through Texas. But the taboos illustrated in the book, like sex and drugs, will make you turn pages even faster.

Moriarty, based on Cassady, is married three times in the book, and is even married to two women at the same time and has children with multiple women. When he’s not driving back and forth across the country to file divorce papers, he’s trying to seduce young women. In Denver, Moriarty tries to get a teenage girl’s attention by throwing rocks at her window. The girl’s mother chases him with a shotgun out of the neighborhood.

In Mexico, Paradise, based on Kerouac himself, and Moriarty smoke themselves silly with marijuana and stumbled into a whorehouse where they have sex with prostitutes. Moriarty’s whore is drunk and underage. Paradise feels sorry for her and the life she lives, but he still sleeps with his prostitute.

Kerouac often described people and scenes as sad and pathetic, just like he described the prostitute. However, this isn’t a setback to the uplifting and inspiring novel. Rather, Kerouac’s honest and raw writing style proves he explained things the way he saw them, which will make you want to get on the road yourself even faster because you’ll know you can experience similar endless possibilities.

In New Orleans, Paradise discovered Old Bull Lee, based on William S. Burroughs, had a heroin addiction. He looked past it, as he had his own addiction to the stimulant Benzedrine. Most of his friends, including Moriarty and Carlo Marx, based on Allen Ginsberg, are also addicted to the stimulant. Moriarty and Marx constantly stay up all night on Benzedrine, talking about poetry and philosophy. This proposed the possibility of inferred homosexuality, but potential judgment is easy to put aside because it’s interesting to read about the philosophies discussed by arguably some of the most brilliant writers of all time.

With the semester about to end and the blank slate of summer beckoning, you should read On the Road. It will inspire you to travel as many places as possible to gain the most experience possible. After all, there is no better way to learn about life than to experience all it has to offer firsthand.

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  • Rick Dale

    I and other Kerouac fans appreciate your giving Jack his due, but please do your homework about the word, “beatnik.” See my blog post on the topic for starters:

  • Jonathan Blitzer, MD

    My father, who by anyone’s estimation is a ‘square’, drove across America with a friend in 1947. Apparently, it was the thing to do back then, when the war was finally over and gas was no longer rationed, and it was a whole new world of possibilities. Cross country trips were, and are now, great opportunities for revelation and insight, not necessarily those fueled by drugs.
    It’s a bit of a letdown to realize that the characters in ‘On The Road’ were high on drugs, not high on life, since they were young and bright and talented. But in the novel it doesn’t come across that way. It seems less a chronicle of debauchery than an odyssey of discovery and friendship.
    I wonder, in today’s age of the internet and social media, whether people still feel the need to get out on the road to have a real experience, or whether they feel they hold the world in the palm of their hand–or even if they distinguish real from processed and artificial experience.

  • Edward Etzkorn, MD

    I have climbed Matterhorn Peak, the peak Jack climbed in ‘The Dharma Bums.’ It is the second-highest peak in Yosemite National Park, and my experience was–fortunately!–much different from Jack’s. I climbed with my oldest son and a very close brother. I have also read ‘On the Road’ and found it very depressing. Melissa, my hope would be that your readers would experience the world with family and friends–without drugs or other artificial stimulants. Jack’s world was a really depressing one. Learn from him, but don’t imitate!

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