On the Road

On the Road



The Pequod Review:

Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road in 1951, and according to legend it was typed during a twenty-day amphetamine-fueled marathon on a single 120-foot roll of paper so as not to interrupt the flow of Kerouac's frenzied thoughts. In truth, the book was actually heavily edited between its original draft in 1951 and its publication in 1957, by both Kerouac and his Viking editor Malcolm Cowley. It should therefore not be a surprise that On the Road is a much more complex book than its reputation as an improvisational road novel. 

The book is the partly-autobiographical story of four road trips taken between 1947 and 1950, all of them involving Kerouac himself (renamed Sal Paradise in the book) and his friend Neal Cassady (Dean Moriarty). The narrative has a youthful exuberance, one that captures the thrilling optimism and redemptive possibilities of long road trips, especially across the American West. But its skill is to also recognize the inevitable disappointments and letdowns of such trips. Like a lot of young adults, Sal and Dean have a longing for something, but they’re not sure what, and of course they never attain it. The book carefully balances these highs and lows, and ultimately ends with a sigh:

So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, and all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars'll be out.

On the Road is quite a fine novel, and while it may be overrated by its most passionate fans, it’s underrated by virtually everyone else.