79. ‘On the Road’ by Jack Kerouac

This is a book I heard about many years ago, probably from friends at school who themselves were on their own journeys of discovery. This book has defined a generation, influenced modern culture, changed attitudes, and laid the groundwork for scores of similar books and films like Easy Rider, Paris, Texas, even Thelma and Louise.

Until now it’s also a book I’ve avoided, probably for this very reason. At first I didn’t like ‘On the road’. It could be the characters of Dean and Sal and the other ‘beat’ generation lot. It could be total disregard for themselves, let alone their friends or communities they come across. Or it could be the pretentious waffle that some of them spout, incessantly. The attitude to women is extremely suspect, not to mention how they talk about or treat the different cultures and ethnic backgrounds they interact with. Perhaps I’m just more tolerant and caring. Perhaps I really don’t like Sal / Jack. 

The narrative swaps from graphically detailed to deeply reflective, neither being really ‘comfortable’ or easy reading. I found the journeys Kerouac described infinitely more interesting than the people; it was hard to not skip ahead and avoid the dialogue, especially from Dean, as it seemed so stereotyped into the post-war James Dean era of youthful rebellion. But then you have to remember that this book defined and set these stereotypes up, the rest of us reading this long after its initial influence has waned and it’s the historical nature of the book that influences us now. 

As one reviewer wrote on the Goodreads website: “[Kerouac] was a pretentious, self-important bore who produced some of the most painfully bad and inconsequential prose of the 20th century.” This is best explained in the third part of the book where Jack describes, at length and in great detail, the jazz clubs of San Francisco. I guess you had to be there to fully appreciate it?

I found the ‘time remaining in book’ and ‘progress’ indicator in my Kindle very distracting, forever disappointing me about how much I’d read, and how much further I had to go. But I did carry on, I did finish the book. I won’t be hurrying back to it again though, as I do with so many other books. 

What I think I need to do, now that I’ve finished the book, is find out more about why so many people hold it is such high regard, why it has achieved the critical acclaim and fondness for so many, and just what the hell it was really all about! Is it just a drug and booze fuelled teen-angst trip of self-indulgence. Is it a journey into how US WWII GI’s acclimatised into society after the war ended (although never mentioneded in so many words, we don’t know in what capacity the characters were involved in the war, but clearly at their ages they probably were, Sal did collect his war ‘pension’)? Perhaps that’s the books legacy, to indulge the reader enough to get them to read more to understand the book … ?

Held my interest: 3/10
Captured my imagination: 2/10
Worth reading: 2/10
Overall: 2/10

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