The only people for writer, Sal Paradise, are ‘the mad ones.’ The type who ‘burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow Roman candles…’ The type like Dean. Fresh from reform school, charismatic Dean Moriarty covets the East Coast intellectual life that Sal represents. Each can provide what the other needs, and as they gravitate inexorably towards each other, their resultant hedonistic adventures reflect a new generation, ‘…the sordid hipsters of America.’ A book rich with the possibilities of being young and alive, On the Road by Jack Kerouac is an essential teen read.
In search of a buzz, thousands of miles of the American continent are criss-crossed, and menial jobs taken, to fund smoky, boozy nights of indulgence. Sex, drugs, and a hell of a lot of jazz. The poet in Sal revels in riding freight trains, hanging out with hobos, and drinking red wine under the moon. My teenage self would have felt this was the very definition of a lust for life.
Some of Sal and Dean’s most intense moments come with Dean at the wheel, foot on the gas and speeding towards new horizons, imagining themselves as desperadoes. I love the scene when they’re driving across Texas and Dean stops to strip off, urging the car’s occupants to ‘disburden’ themselves of their clothes. Imagine the sheer joy of driving naked under wide Texan skies, with the sun on your skin.
‘The madness of Dean had bloomed into a weird flower.’
Though they spend a lot of time rushing back and forth across the country, of course the real journey is that of self-discovery, and there comes a point where Sal and Dean run out of road.
This is the zeitgeist novel that defined a generation. Yes, to modern sensibilities, it’s dated in places and may cause the odd wince, but Kerouac’s sheer poetic energy remains. Extolling the freedoms of youth, Kerouac asks us, ‘What’s your road, man?’
Whatever it is kids, take it.
On the Road by Jack Kerouac is published Penguin Modern Classics, 320 pages.