"On the Road" by Jack Kerouac
"I spun around till I was dizzy; I thought I'd fall down as in a dream, clear off the precipice. Oh where is the girl I love? I thought, and looked everywhere, as I had looked everywhere in the little world below. And before me was the great raw bulge and hulk of my American continent; somewhere far across, gloomy, crazy New York was throwing up its cloud of dust and brown steam. There is something brown and holy about the East; and California is white like washlines and emptyheaded - at least that's what I thought then."
The bible of the Beat Generation, "On the Road" first saw print in 1957. It is not surprising that people get confused about what decade this book is from, since most of the novel takes place between 1947 and 1949, and it didn't reach the height of its popularity until the 1960s.
By the 1960s, there were young people all over America ready to embrace this book as their own, and for this reason "On the Road" has had a lasting effect on American culture. It wasn't just the Beat Generation that drew inspiration from this novel. The hippies were also influenced by "On the Road." It expressed a yearning for freedom common to all people, so its multigenerational appeal is easy to understand.
It doesn't have much of a plot, however. Just two (or more) guys driving around. I suppose you could say it details the relationship between the narrator, Sal Paradise, and his friend Dean Moriarity, but the book is really just about the road, and driving, and new destinations. There is a purity to it that's surprising.
And if you asked me - point blank - if this is a good book I would have to say that yes, it is. If the test of any book is how entertaining it is, and also how lasting its influence upon those who have read it, this book is one of the great novels of American literature. It's right up there with "Catcher in the Rye."
But this isn't to say that everyone will like it. Female readers will probably find certain attitudes toward women offensive. Members of minority groups might also question some of the racial stereotypes. Those of us who grew up lower or middle class might also have trouble sympathizing with Paradise's prep school circle. None of the characters in this book are innocent pilgrims, and there are certainly other sides to their unabridged desire for travel.
This book reminded me of the month I spent living in my car, travelling around the Western US. I didn't have any GI Bill, just some money I had saved up working in a clothing store. I ate out of cans, I slept in my car, or in a tent beside the road, and I saw a lot of things that I carry with me to this day. It was a good experience, but there were bad parts to it: things like running out of money, and finding a dead guy in California. "On the Road" reminded me very much of this month in my life, though I couldn't help but feel that Kerouac had glossed over many facets this lifestyle. At times, it almost felt like reading a work of propaganda.
It's a good book, and of enduring historical interest. I found the Dean Moriarity character hard to like, but then again we've all known someone like Dean, somewhere on the road.