Ok, I have been following this blog called 'The Daily Beat' for some time now, I can't recall how I came across it. Rick has been going on about the film being made of On The Road, and I like to read the book before I see the film, especially where such classics are concerned, so there we go. And now I am not so sure I want to see the film. I find that although I really like beat poets I am not that fond of Jack Kerouac. Confession time ... I think I may have started this book many years ago and abandoned it, and this time I was determined to finish but ended up skim reading in the hope that it would get better as it went along, and I think maybe it did but not until the last 20 pages or so when they go off to Mexico.
The saga goes that Kerouac wrote this book in a three week mammoth stint having taped sheets of paper together into a huge roll to save the interruption of having to change the sheets. This is the tale of Sal Paradise and his friend Dean Moriarty. I tried really hard to read it in the spirit in which it was written but I felt like it very quickly became somewhat like a primary school 'what I did on my holidays' essay. Sorry, I feel like I am being really harsh but it was quite literally, 'and then we did such and such and then we went such a place and then we got drunk and then we crashed with such and such friends'. For long stretches he describes in detail everything he did, down to the getting up in the morning and sitting down on sofas and what he ate, what people wore, lots of tedious details about cars. I was bored stupid. For some reason I expected it to be making some kind of political statement or social commentary but it never did. And then there is the whole Dean Moriarty thing. Why do people think he is so fascinating? What a most dislikable character; thoughtless, self-obsessed, utterly ego-centric, unsympathetic, and by the time I was half way through I could just imagine his "maniacal giggling" (mentioned ad nauseam) and knew it would irritate the hell out of me.
See now I feel like an old stick-in-the-mud frowning at all their fun and saying 'tut tut how irresponsible', but maybe it's because the idea of living like that is essentially quite disturbing. The book is about living for the moment and soaking up the sensual experiences that are on offer with very little thought of where life might go next, giving up any sense of control and allowing life to just happen and sweep you along with it. This quote kind of sums up the philosophy, how Sal kept making plans and then, because of the whole 'swept along' thing the plans were abandoned, but it's quite nice stylistically as it shows how Kerouac does do a good job of creating a picture of the world they moved in:
" 'Don't worry, man,' said big Ponzo. 'Tomorrow we make a lot of money; tonight we don't worry.' We went back and picked up Terry and her brother and the kid and drove to Fresno in the highway lights of night. We were all raving hungry. We bounced over the railroad tracks in Fresno and hit the wild streets of Fresno Mextown. Strange Chinese hung out of windows, digging the Sunday night streets; groups of Mex chicks swaggered around in slacks; mambo blasted from jukeboxes; the lights were festooned around like Halloween. We went into a Mexican restaurant and had tacos and mashed pinto beans rolled in tortillas; it was delicious. I whipped out my last shining five-dollar bill which stood between me and the New Jersey shore and paid for Terry and me. Now I had four bucks." (p.84)
Now I do have to say a small word about the misogyny, which I was trying not to judge too harshly because of course this book predates the women's movement and reflects attitudes towards women that predominated at the time, but they essentially see women as disposable sex object, even though Dean seems to have the habit of marrying women he has just met, there is no sense of them having any kind of meaningful relationships or even friendships with the women they meet. Sal seems to get rapidly emotionally entangled but just as rapidly abandons them without a backwards glance. They pick up women and take their money and leave them by the roadside. Marylou and Camille (Dean's first two wives) are the only women who appear consistently throughout the book and they came across to me as devoid of any real character, merely people who were trying to hamper their enjoyment of life by entrapping him with responsibilities. This quote gives the general gist:
"Walter's wife smiled and smiled as we repeated the insane thing all over again. She never said a word.
Out on the dawn street Dean said, 'Now you see, man, there's real woman for you. Never a harsh word, never a complaint, or modified; her old man can come in any hour of the night with anybody and have talks in the kitchen and drink the beer and leave any old time. This is a man and that's his castle.' " (p.185)
I'll move on to the end where maybe I just got into the swing of it or maybe he got more into his stride as he wrote. Sal, Dean and Stan travel down to Mexico, Dean to get a cheap divorce. They drive through the jungle at night, in Dean's beat up old car and there is this lovely scene where Sal tries to sleep on the roof of the car. I finally felt that the writing was doing something interesting:
"I went back to my bed of steel and stretched out with my arms spread. I didn't even know if branches or open sky were directly above me, and it made no difference. I opened my mouth to it and drew deep breaths of jungle atmosphere. It was not air, never air, but the palpable and living emanation of trees and swamp. I stayed awake. Roosters began to crow the dawn across the brakes somewhere. Still no air, no breeze, no dew, and the same Tropic of Cancer heaviness held us all pinned to earth, where we belonged and tingled. There was no sign of dawn in the skies." (p.269)
and their jungle experience is contrasted so starkly with the fabulous description of Mexico City as they drive down in the following day:
"A brief mountain pass took us suddenly to a height from which we saw all of Mexico City stretched out in its volcanic crater below and spewing city smokes and early dusklights. Down to it we zoomed, down Insurgentes Boulevard, straight towards the heart of town at Reforma. Kids played soccer in enormous sad fields and threw up dust. Taxi-drivers overtook us and wanted to know if we wanted girls. No, we didn't want girls now. Long, ragged adobe slums stretched out on the plain; we saw lonely figures in the dimming alleys. Soon night would come. Then the city roared in and suddenly we were passing crowded cafés and theaters and many lights. Newsboys yelled at us. Mechanics slouched by, barefoot, with wrenches and rags, Mad barefoot Indian drivers cut across us and surrounded us and tooted and made frantic traffic. The noise was incredible." (p.274)
Ok, last quote now. It is interesting that although I did not like or enjoy the book it raised a lot of thoughts. I guess the appeal of the book lies in the idea of stepping outside of normal life, abandoning all sense of morality and responsibility, the idea that life could be utterly free. It left me feeling a bit sad because I felt rather hollow, the lack of real connections with other people, in spite of this supposed bond between Sal and Dean. The book idealises this way of seeing existence, I just don't think I believe that it is as wonderful as he is trying to make out:
(Sal looking out at Dean)
"This was what we sensed about the ghost on the sidewalk. I looked out the window. He was alone in the doorway, digging the street. Bitterness, recriminations, advice, morality, sadness - everything was behind him, and ahead of him was the ragged and ecstatic joy of pure being." (p.178)