On the Road

Comic book-style cover of Jack Kerouac's On the Road.

I just finished Jack Kerouac’s seminal novel On the Road. I stayed up until one o’clock in the morning last night reading. I read the Original Scroll version (purchased at City Lights in San Francisco) in 2015, but I had never taken in the commercially released version. The copy I got for Christmas has a wonderful comic book-style cover with illustrations featuring a few of the main “characters” in the story. It took just a few days and nights to consume the book. You don’t read Kerouac, you consume him, you absorb him. He would’ve turned 99 last Friday had he lived. Even if he hadn’t drank himself to death at the age of 47 he probably wouldn’t have made it to 99.

I’ve explored Denver as The Beats did in the 1940s the last few times I’ve visited that town. The Five Points neighborhood is long gone but the jazz clubs persist and I wish I would have taken in some performances during my trips. I’ve visited My Brother’s Bar and shopped for Beat literature at the Tattered Cover bookstore. I’ve stood where Kerouac stood and walked in Denver and in San Francisco at City Lights and throughout North Beach. The Beat walking tour that ends at The Beat Museum across the street from City Lights was an enlightening way to learn about Kerouac’s visits to The City which, if his novels are to be believed, were never much fun for him. I’ve been to Mexico City and devoured tacos and cerveza at a corner neighborhood stand.

When I was young, I had always identified with The Beats even though I had never read anything they’d ever written. I knew the names – Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, Neal Cassady, Herbert Huncke, Edie Parker, Diane DiPrima, et al. I knew they were writers and poets that had been mythologized for the better part of a half a century. But I didn’t discover the words they had written until I was in my mid-40s. Many people at least read Kerouac in high school or college. Not me. I was reading Dean Koontz, Stephen King, and Anne Rice. The only books written by early and mid-20th century writers or even older authors that I read were required by a high school teacher or three. The books I have written myself echo King, Koontz, and Rice, rather than Kerouac.

Since reading the Original Scroll version of On the Road, I’ve embarked on a bit of scholarship regarding The Beats. I’ve watched documentaries and interviews and the like trying to understand who these people were, what they were trying to do, where they were trying to go, what they contributed. I’ve grown quite fond of a YouTube clip of Kerouac’s appearance on The Steve Allen Show in 1959. I’ve read The Dharma Bums, Big Sur, The Haunted Life, The Subterraneans, the commercial and lost scroll versions of On the Road, and parts of The Unknown Kerouac by Jack Kerouac and Off the Road by Neal Cassady’s wife Carolyn Cassady. I posses other Kerouac volumes that sit on my to-be-read pile. I own other Beat literature as well.

I see some of myself and my early wanderlust in Jack Kerouac as I am sure many others have and do. I’ve examined friendships and found echoes of Jack’s relationship with Neal in one in particular. I’ve often thought of writing a book about my own Beat adventures in Kerouac’s narrative, stream-of-consciousness style. I stop short thinking nobody would want to read such drivel. I’ve been the third or fifth wheel, I’ve often shuffled after people who interest me, I’ve been the wallflower and the fly on the wall, and I have been the center of attention and the life of the party.

Many wonder what my fascination is with Kerouac and his writing. I wish I could answer that question. At his best, he is frantic and frenetic and takes you on the ride of your life either careening downhill with the car in neutral to save gas or climbing mountains without safety equipment. In The Haunted Life, Kerouac describes listening to a baseball game on the radio on a hot summer day like no one did before or has since. In On the Road, you feel like you are in the car with Kerouac and Cassady and the hapless ride-alongs from the ride-sharing service. In The Unknown Kerouac, his essays and journal entries leap off the page as he tries to figure out where he belongs. In The Dharma Bums you discover someone who is trying to learn the meaning of life and in Big Sur you realize he never will. After you read Kerouac, you’ll never listen to jazz the same way again (I often listen to jazz while I’m writing or reading). At his worst, he’s an overweight middle-aged drunk making a fool of himself on the William F. Buckley Firing Line program.

I’ve been to Big Sur and Bixby Bridge and thought of Ferlinghetti’s cabin and as I’ve driven up and down the California coast I’ve often wondered what Kerouac would think of the tourist-infested roads and towns and neighborhoods he once explored as a hitchhiker and bus rider. I don’t think he’d care for it very much. Reflecting on my own travels in my late teens I am thankful I had a car, I couldn’t imagine hitchhiking, although I have done my share of bus riding. There’s no way in hell you could retrace Kerouac’s tracks today, not the way he traveled. You’d end up dead or worse. Remember, I’ve read Stephen King, I know what really happens along those long lost lonely Nebraska roads.

On the Road will always be my favorite Jack Kerouac novel. I’ll read it again I suspect and I am sure it will be with new eyes and a new perspective. I never knew what it meant to be “beat,” and by the time I learned what it was I knew that I was not. Life happened, events transpired, and now I am “beat.”

“I had nothing to offer anybody, except my own confusion.” – Jack Kerouac, On the Road