Jack Kerouac wrote On The Road over a period of three weeks, dosed up on Benzedrine and coffee, typing out one continuous scroll, one hundred and twenty feet of tracing paper sheets cut to size and taped together. And it has become the most lasting and famous of all the Beat Generation novels. No matter that it was planned over a period of three years, carefully considered in the secret notebooks of its author as he careered across the country, it contains that spontaneity of spirit, that wilful abandon and reckless joy which Kerouac so vociferously advocated.
On The Road follows the adventures of Sal Paradise as he flits back and forth across America in search of life and jazz and women and the America of his dreams. Inspired by Sal’s hero, the fabulous, unpredictable and always exciting Dean Moriarty, his adventures from coast to coast are the very epitome of youthful exuberance. James Dean, Marlon Brando, Jack Kerouac: it is these people who invented the modern way of being young. On The Road can be summer up in one phrase: ‘too fast to live’.
But I have to admit that On The Road did little for me. I was neither energised or in awe at such mind boggling liberation. But then I am quite terrified of such unending energy, there is nothing that appeals less to me than the constant exposure of a long, uninterrupted road trip. So I’m probably not the most reliable source for On The Road. Truman Capote, however, described Kerouac’s stream of consciousness style as mere “typing” and although this is overly critical, there is something in it. The plot essentially repeats itself continuously, one haphazard experience after another, each of which feels like its predecessor.
On The Road is largely autobiographical, though the real names were changed before its original 1958 publication. Dean Mariarty is Neal Cassady while Carlo Marx refers to Allen Ginsberg. The original scroll also contained additional sex scenes which were dropped for fear of drawing charges of obscenity. But now, as of 2007, the fiftieth anniversary of its publication, On The Road is, for the first time, available in its single paragraph original form, complete with real names and cut scenes, perfect for all those for whom it is one of the defining texts of the twentieth century.
On The Road will never be my favourite novel, probably because I have never felt really, wildly, young. But it is one of the novels everyone should read, perhaps even passionately devour, because it demonstrates perfectly that brilliant literature must do only one thing: speak to the heart of its reader. If it achieves this then it should be cherished forever.
6 out of 10