Monday, 24 July 2000
Jack Kerouac: On the Road (1957)
Review number: 548
It is easy to see why On the Road was such an important novel to the Sixties, with its rootless characters, dissatisfied with what they would normally expect from the world around them, wanting to break out and be different. It is also clear where it comes from and to where it pointed. The working class vernacular style of The Grapes of Wrath is an important influence, though there is a major difference between the writing of Kerouac and Steinbeck. The journeys in On the Road (which is the story of four car trips across the US in the fifties) have no specific motivation while that of the Joad family is forced by economic necessity. Looking the other way, without On the Road's celebration of hedonism, both William Burrough's Naked Lunch and Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas would have been quite different.
On the Road was so influential because of its timing. It struck the chord that was to be at the centre of the sixties, just as Rebel Without a Cause did. At the end of the century, to a non-American, its quality alone would not justify a similar impact. It contains fine passages, but its theme of irresponsibility makes it annoying much of the time; reading it is like being the only sober person at a party. You end up wishing that Sal and his friends (particularly Dean Moriarty) would grow up, and lose some of their selfish parasitism (they spend most of the book living on borrowed or stolen money).
On the Road's greatest strength is its evocation of freedom; that is why it spoke so strongly to those who desired this kind of freedom. It has become a formative influence on modern culture, and yet Kerouac is nothing like as good a writer as either Burroughs or Steinbeck (thinking of those I have already mentioned). The novel is far more important for what it stands for than for what it is.