So many books to read, so little time.

Dead-beats on the road

with 3 comments

A while back I promised myself that I would read more novels. I’ve been meaning to read On The Road, by Beat Generation writer Jack Kerouac, on and off, for 20 years or more. Penguin has released a new edition, so I recently brought a copy and read it.

When I was in my teens and twenties, I hitched about a lot, in New Zealand and overseas. The road trip I remember best was in ’89, when several of us packed into a Valiant station wagon and drove clear across Australia, from Perth to Melbourne, via the Great Southern and the vast Nullarbor plain. I remember driving towards the rock wall of the Stirling Range, rising sheer out of the desert, and seeing the red, brown and yellow strata sparkling in the midday sun after a rainstorm. And shifting down, then jamming the accelerator hard, to pass road trains – giant trucks pulling two or three trailers – on desert road straights across the Nullarbor. Good times.

On The Road reminded me a little of those days – particularly the early part of the book where Sal Paradise sets off from New York to hitch to the west coast in the late 1940s. You get a fresh sense of life on the open road from someone who’s seeing it for the first time. Kerouac’s description of the landscape is poetic, and some of his character sketches are well-drawn.

But On The Road quickly becomes turgid – an empty and verbose account of criss-crossing the United States at breakneck speed, with a detour, towards the end of the novel, into Mexico. Of driving day and night, always drunk or high, or both, rarely stopping anywhere longer than a few hours, and certainly never long enough to get more than shallow impressions of people and places. 

Kerouac portrays the two main protagonists – Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty – as noble. He would, of course, given that the book is written roman à clef. But really the pair are dead-beats. Paradise is a witless drop-kick; Moriarty is a real loser, and a predator to boot. The book gets really creepy when it condones the abuse of women – emotionally, physically and sexually. The way the protagonists sexually exploit young women – for instance in the Mexican brothel – is repellent.

I don’t know that much about the Beat Generation and its self-indulgent musings. After reading On The Road I have little desire to find out more.


Written by kotare1718

December 3, 2008 at 8:56 am

Posted in fiction

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3 Responses

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  1. Hehe. You read it right. Boring as f*ck, and self-indulgent to boot. Far better off reading Hunter Thompson for insights into the American dream. Kerouac was a bore, hooked on his own (non-)brilliance. Moriarty is one of the least sympathetic protagonists one can imagine, and I don’t really care who wants to screw Ginsberg to be honest.

    Kerouac bragged he wrote OTR in ninety days or something, fuelled by speed and whiskey (or something). Yawn. Whilst there are passages of illumination and beauty, generally it reads like an adolescent diary of self-obsession and navel-gazing. One nice bit about trees though…

    Tim Stevens

    December 3, 2008 at 1:17 pm

  2. Far better off reading tea leaves for that matter. Kerouac’s works are a “had to be there” effort from my perspective. Hence my high school enforced reading at the behest of teachers who “were there” and saw a trans-generational timelessness that completely eluded most of us.


    December 4, 2008 at 1:24 am

  3. Funny you mention Hunter S Thompson, Tim. After I wrote the post I dragged out my copy of ‘Hell’s Anglels’ – his best book in my opinion.


    December 4, 2008 at 6:24 am

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