On The Road by Jack Kerouac

“I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up.”

Having read Kerouac’s travelogue, The Dharma Bums a couple of years ago, I was really looking forward to this read, as On The Road is considered Kerouac’s finest work.  With great anticipation I picked up the book, began to read, and what did I find ……..???

A Roman a clef, with the characters acting as stand-ins for Kerouac and his buddies and their real life adventures, the novel traces their journeys as they travel back and forth across America between 1947 and 1950.  This Beat Generation, or post-World War II writers, Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and Neal Cassady are mostly drunk, high, stoned or looking for sex, throughout most of the novel. The rambling, sparse, uninteresting prose had me nearly catatonic about one-quarter of the way into the book and it was only with a supreme effort of will that I managed to finish.  Brutal.

So what was the difference between The Dharma Bums and On The Road? Why did I love one and hate the other?  Well, with The Dharma Bums, while there was drug use it somehow seemed more innocent and less destructive. The characters sincerely appeared to be grappling with the purpose of life. There was thought and philosophy and even some solid descriptions of the places visited.  On The Road related the meaningless conduct of a bunch of miscreants who had no concern for anyone but themselves, were too stoned to think most of the time, and when they did, it was often complete nonsense. In real life, most of the characters died before their 40th or 50th birthdays from either a drug or alcohol-related death.  Such a sad waste of life, with nothing romantically counter-cultural, or excitingly anti-establishment about it.

One interesting anecdote is that the manuscript for this book was typed on a continuous scroll of one hundred and twenty feet of tracing paper taped together, single-spaced without margins or paragraph breaks.  A quirky writing method from a very experimental author.

The “On The Road” Scroll
Boott Cotton Mills Museum 2007
source Wikipedia

8 thoughts on “On The Road by Jack Kerouac

  1. Great concise critical review: who, what, where, why….and how you reacted to the book. A comparision with The Dharma Bums was interesting. On the Road will remain an important American novel that mirrors popular culture at that time…..but it does not mean one has to like it! Bravo! (…and welcome back…)

  2. Thanks for the welcome back, Nancy! I have so little to say about this book. If it actually mirrored popular culture, that's just sad; it would surprise me though if the mainstream of the U.S. population was acting this way. I can see writing this book for his buddies, to be able to enjoy escapades that probably held a quaint nostalgia for them but as a reader it left me completely unmoved. I'd like to hear from some people who enjoyed it though and see why they did, other than perhaps its shock-value, which to my mind, doesn't make a book a solid piece of literature. I still plan to read his book Big Sur and that will probably cement my view of Kerouac as a writer. As a person I feel rather sorry for him.

  3. Your review made me chuckle. I'll be avoiding this one and checking out Dharma Bums instead. Why Kerouac decided to type it out on a scroll is beyond me. He must have been smokin' some really good stuff kush at the time.

  4. LOL! I'm glad I gave you a laugh. It's not often that I'm completely disgusted with a book and can't think up one positive thing to say about it, but this one fits that category.

    I think you'd really enjoy The Dharma Bums, but I can't say whether you'd give it more than three stars. 😉

  5. It's funny you felt that way about the book. I've read other books about the beatniks and felt the same way. If you took out the sex and drug use you'd have….blank pages. It all got quite monotonous. I only finished one of those kinds of books and feel I've done my bit for beatnik writing. Thanks for a good, honest review. Sometimes I think people review those kinds of books because they think they're supposed to but it's really a kind of "emperor is naked" kind of admiration.

  6. Oh, this book. This book and I have a slightly depressing history. My friend recommended it to me so I bought it and never got around to reading it, and then he sadly died so pretty soon after I read it and… well, same reaction as you. Which is a shame because I'd rather pinned my hopes on loving it! I did read The Dharma Bums as well (actually can't remember if I read that before or after On the Road) and I loved that. Since then I've read a couple of Kerouacs (Big Sur was one and I don't remember the other) and strongly disliked them. But Dharma Bums – an excellent book 🙂

  7. I absolutely LOVE your emperor-naked allusion! That's exactly what it is!

    I think I'll be rather wary of beatnik/Beat Generation books from now on. Note to self: skim before I read …….. 😀

  8. That's really sad about your friend. 🙁 I wonder what it is about The Dharma Bums that makes it so engaging. Perhaps the fact that he's delving into Buddhism …??? At least there is a purpose to his journey …??? That's too bad about Big Sur. I was expecting something between the other two books, but I don't think I can handle another On The Road. Perhaps I should put that one in my "maybe-never" pile!

Thanks for visiting. I'd love to hear from you and have you join in the discussion!