More noise than signal

On The Road — Jack Kerouac

In all probability, you don’t need a know-nothing peon like me to start talking about what is probably the definitive ‘beat’ movement manuscript, but then I’m not forcing you to read this, am I? (Note to any of my torture victims – if you actually are being forced to read this, please accept my apologies for this incongruous statement but rest assured it in no way lessens my dominant hold over you.)

The title does not lie – this is indeed a book about being on the road. It tells of the semi-autobiographical narrator Sal Paradise, a New York author and his evolving friendship with a Dean Moriarty, (taking time out from his eternal battle with Sherlock Holmes) a young, exuberant, reckless, dangerous, free-spirited, crazy kid who, over the course of the five or so years we know him becomes a young, exuberant, reckless, dangerous, free-spirited, crazy man. This is the story of the narrator and various combinations of Dean and assorted friends, acquaintances and hangers-on as they travel across America to San Francisco, Denver and many a place inbetween.

Despite the copious alcohol and marijuana imbibed by their group, and the antics that this occasionally leads to, this isn’t the completely whacked-out antics of its Gonzo stablemate Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. Young folks do that sort of thing on holiday, don’t they? I don’t know. I can’t keep up with the trends of the kids these days, what with all the hula-hooping and freebasing and whatnot.

If it’s narrative you’re after, this perhaps isn’t the place to look. While, naturally, things happen, and these things have real consequence to the characters, who by about thirteen pages in have become so intriguing and well-realised that you silently curse not having them as friends yourself, there’s not some overarching goal to achieve other than to get where they’re going and have their kicks along the way.

It’s often said it’s the journey and not the destination that’s the heart of traveling; here it’s the language and not the narrative that’s brought this to the dance. The ebb and flow of Kerouac’s prose is little short of inspired, hypnotic and beautiful in a way many would ape but precious few could master. In a sense what’s going on is almost irrelevant, the descriptions of what’s going on more than enough to warrant the book’s existence and demand your attention. The phrase ‘modern classic’ is thrown around far too readily for my tastes in these dark days, but this book more than warrants it. I’m a better, richer man for the experience of reading it, and there’s really no better way for a book to leave you.