I had planned to write a Nicking from Novels today about Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. I’ve just finished rereading the novel. I picked it up at an airport bookstore coming or going from Wales—it seemed like the kind of thing that, as a 17-year-old who desperately wanted to be a writer, was a necessity. I remember being caught up in the madness of it, the descriptions of jazz and the mythology of the American Road. Dean and Sal screwed up too many things to really be role models (and it wasn’t the 1950s anymore), but they were close. I thought there was something to emulate in the life fully lived, the mad saintliness of a Dean Moriarty.
On the Road ought, as a thumbnail sketch, be a buddy comedy: two friends pursuing kicks back and forth across the country. Rereading it over the last week, I’ve thought more about how much the two protagonists screw things up. Dean leaves wreckage in his wake, always, whether it’s his broken marriages, stolen cars, or nicked wallets. Sal, vitally, knows better and goes along with Dean anyway, even encouraging him. They enable each other in all the worst ways. It’s a tragedy.
Those were things that, I think, it would have been impossible for me to understand at 17. I could think, in the abstract, that it was bad for Dean to abandon first one wife, then another, then the mother of yet another of his children. As a parent, an adult with “real world” responsibilities, I get just how awful it really is. I also see the casual, almost helpless misogyny in so many of the protagonists’ interactions with women. The desperate moments—picking up cigarette butts on the street, going without food, having to beg shelter from resentful near-strangers—stand out more. I got a much better sense of just what beat meant to Kerouac, and it wasn’t good.
None of this keeps On the Road from being a beautiful book. Kerouac does breathtakingly poetic things with language, whether he’s talking about Dean or music or the Road. There are these brilliant moments where a metaphor snaps everything into perfect focus, the kind of clarity that only comes when a thing is likened. It’s magic. I can’t recall any other author (or many other poets) who can do that so consistently, make it seem so natural within the flow of words.
The metaphors make the melancholy all the more sublime. On the Road is simultaneously a deeply Romantic book and a deeply American book. It embraces loneliness and the pursuit of women just as enthusiastically as Keats and Byron and Shelley. It transposes the unknowable wilderness to the road itself, but treats it similarly: a place to be astounded and to know oneself. The characters chase life. They do that, though, in an American context. The American Dream is always in the background, the dream America dreams of itself: the mythic West, the tumult, the go-ness that always wants a home to return to. Sal and Dean never seem quite sure whether they’re running toward something or away from it; they’re fleeing life, too.
For me, today, it has been about away. I’m sitting in a coffee shop and the news has spent the morning rehearsing a gun attack on a congressional baseball practice. The Senate is manufacturing a healthcare bill in secret that seems likely to be catastrophic to people I care about. Last night I dreamed of concrete and plywood and baseball and music and all these things have knotted together in my stomach. I want to go, to go perpendicular to everything, away from everything in a direction that doesn’t exist. I get—I dig—a bit of what push-pulled Sal and Dean to the road over and over and over. They’re chasing something, fleeing something. Their drive—and their driving—is inseparable from the melancholy, from the sense that the world is spinning and spinning and the only things worth knowing are the things that are spinning away.
Tonight, probably, I will sleep better. Tomorrow, probably, the news will be a little less dire. Tomorrow, probably, there will be no knot in my stomach making my feet itch to walk in a direction that doesn’t exist. Today, though, I’m a little beat, a little beaten down, with words the only things that can take me the direction I need to go.