On the Road swings to the rhythms of 1950s underground America, jazz, sex, generosity, chill dawns and drugs, with Sal Paradise and his hero Dean Moriarty, traveller and mystic, the living epitome of Beat. Now recognized as a modern classic, its American Dream is nearer that of Walt Whitman than Scott Fitzgerald, and it goes racing towards the sunset with unforgettable exuberance, poignancy and autobiographical passion.
The premise of On The Road sounds exciting: set just after the second world war, an ex-soldier come disillusioned youth sets off to find himself by travelling from coast to coast across the USA. However not once did I find this book exciting. It is written in an autobiographical style with Sal Paradise as the protagonist of the tale. Sal lives with his aunt in New Jersey and as a budding writer dreams of following his friends across America to the west coast and he has decided to go for it: Sal is the epitome of “you’re only young once”. As Sal hitch-hikes and buses his way from place to place he takes every misfortune in his stride and never seems to be concerned with anything past the next few hours. Throughout the story he runs into various acquaintances along his travels and with very little difficulty as well: On The Road gives the impression that the USA must be very sparsely populated indeed if everyone is so easy to track down. After all , this was before most working class families would have a telephone in their homes and a world away from the modern-day world of mobile phones and social networking. Yet everyone is always where they should be even though no one seems to stay in one place for very long. As Sal moves from place to place he never looks back, never wonders what became of the people he met or the places he’s seen. He is always moving forward; avoiding all responsibility for his life and the lives around him.
What I liked about this book: I have tried to think of something positive to say but have come up blank. I can’t even say that the fact that it is only 300 pages is a good thing as it felt much, much longer.
What I didn’t like about this book: There is no point listing everything I disliked, it would take too long and I’ve already wasted too much of my life on this book. I think my biggest complaint is that in theory this could have been an intriguing story yet on paper it failed to spark the imagination. There was also no personality in the telling of the tale, it was more as if a child had written it: And then we did this and then that and then this happened etc, etc. I never felt I was given Sal’s take on what was happening: there was no reflection on the events and no insight as to how it made him feel. Any descriptions that were given were unimaginative and did not transport me to 1940’s San Francisco or 1950’s Denver. Also the pace of the book would chop and change at a moment’s notice: sometimes there was just too much happening, too much information on one page to take in yet at other times it was too slow with nothing of interest happening at all. Sal would travel to a new town and there would only be a small paragraph dedicated to it, yet at other times the smallest occurrences would be described in minute detail to the point of boredom.
I can imagine a book about a 20-30 year old male refusing to grow up, drinking too much, taking drugs, sleeping around and travelling the country as if he were homeless would cause controversy when it was first published in 1957. I can also imagine that at the time many young people would empathise with this book. However I did not find it controversial and I certainly did not find myself empathising with any of the main characters. I understand that this book is more fact than fiction; it is supposedly Jack Kerouac’s autobiography of his life travelling the country with his friends and all he did was just change some names. This probably explains why the book doesn’t really make any sense as a piece of fiction as it’s not supposed to be.
I do feel that the main events of the book would have been more interesting if they had been written by someone with more talent for telling a good story; someone who could have injected a bit more personality into it. There is a film adaptation due out in the UK in September 2012 and I would be interested to see if this proves my theory right: if the film is good then the failure of the book is not the content but the way it is presented. I will never, ever read this book again and I urge anyone out there considering it not to put yourself through it. Watch the film instead; for once I can guarantee it will be better than the book!