“On the Road” by Jack Kerouac

On the Road -- Jack Kerouac

On the Road -- Jack Kerouac

A close reading is where one focuses on a certain portion of the book–say a chapter, or a scene, or a paragraph–that they find resonates thematically and can be used as a major sign post for directions as one read through a novel or any work for that matter, including films. The following is not the only interpretation residing in “On the Road” because there are many things going on within this text. But here is a brief overview of what I found very significant and said a lot about the characters, the time, and the author. Enjoy.

 

There Will Never Be Enough Time: Dean Moriarty’s Beliefs

 

One has to die before they go to “heaven,” but why does this have to be true? Could it be possible to visit heaven before we die? On the Road is a book about identity and life; all its ups and downs; its malleable ebb and flow; the tasting it, feeling it, being it whenever possible. There is a quiet fear in most men and women—perhaps even more heightened during the time period presented in the book—where American youths were beginning to realize that death can come at any time, and when it does will we have experienced all we wanted to experience? In a very philosophical sense: within the phenomena of life on earth and consciousness, it just may be that the only meaning to be found in one’s time here is the meaning one gives it.

            I reference part two, chapter one to make this point, however will only highlight the strongest lines in the block quote below. I am close reading the jazz-like pages of 113 and 114 of the Penguin Classic Edition, 1991, where Dean and Sal are finally beginning their first real road trip and Dean is driving, swaying, chuckling, speeding up, slowing down, going on tangents, and generally pumping his every thought into the minds around him for digestion:

“All right now, children,” he said, rubbing his nose and bending down to fell the emergency and pulling cigarettes out of the compartment, and swaying back and forth as he did these things and drove… he slowed down the car for all of us to turn and look at the old jazzbo… trailing off and stopping altogether, and suddenly jumping the car back to seventy… This was the new and complete Dean, grown to maturity. Fury spat out of his eyes when he told of things he hated; great glows of joy replaced this when he suddenly got happy; every muscled twitched to live and go… [Dean] “Oh man, we must absolutely find the time…”

(p. 113, Penguin Classic Edition, 1991)

Dean continues to speed up and slow down, weave in and out of traffic, and all in all come off looking like a bi-polar addict into page 114 and beyond. His addiction however is not some pill or syringe, but rather the interaction with his environments and the people. If we are destined to live a life riddled with confusion, choices, and some unanswerable question, the least Dean can do is live and feel everything possible. He feels all should do this, but they can only find this state of mind when they are ready. That is when they shall find “it.” (I believe that this novel gets unjustly placed as exclusively a “beat generation” book and is thus subconsciously limited in what can be drawn from it. This is about life in a much bigger picture than a single generation’s interactions and influences with their particular social cultures and political trials.)

Another deconstruction of the quote from above can focus on the statement about having to find time; the time to tell tales; make admissions of aspirations and fears; time to live and live well. To live fully. The problem, as one would find throughout the novel, is that this way of life and this set of ideals are sometimes contrary to the expectations of others and societal norms. Not everyone reaches or respects or can even comprehend the attitudes and outlooks of Dean Moriarty. People will reach this plane, if at all, at different times in their lives and for different reasons. Sal continues to learn from Dean throughout the story, and comes to understand the inherent benefits and detractions which acting this way can have on one’s life. He cannot live like a mad dog and experience everything that life has to offer. By the end, it is proven that little can be held on to when one is trying to do everything and anything.

Lastly, the jazz influence and elements of this block quote must be reviewed; the very nature of both the long-block writing style of Jack Kerouac in this section and the way in which Dean is speaking and driving. Its metaphorical comparison to jazz and the free-flowing style of bop musicianship cannot be overstated. It is clearly the first and strongest indication in the book that not only is Dean a creature entirely his own, but Jack Kerouac is doing something very specific. Dean’s speed changes in the car mirror the tempo changes of a jazz tune; the same way his emotions are never masked—it’s always clear how he is feeling, just as the emotions can come through during an saxophone or piano or clarinet solo. There is anguish and lust and sorrow and excitement.

            Furthermore, on page 114:

… he roared into downtown Testament, looking in every direction and seeing everything in an arc of 180 degrees around his eye balls without moving his head. Bang, he found a parking spot in no time… he leapt out of the car… Furiously he hustled. It was a shaking of the head, up and down, sideways; jerky vigorous hands; quick walking, sitting, crossing the legs, uncrossing, getting up, rubbing the hands…

 

He is hungry and maniacal. These actions can be directly connected with the realities of finite time and mortality. There is only so much time in our days and only so much one can do in their lives. When there is cerebral clarity in an individual to understand these complex, fleeting concepts, what other reaction besides near madness and chemical imbalance could one expect from an individual? Let the vices and obsessions come! Made even more complicated by the expectations of others and the fears of our own limitations, it’s plain to see how enlightenment, regardless of one’s generation, can result in near metaphysical break-downs.

Even though the gang feared that “death with overtake us before heaven” they did all in their power to experience as much of Heaven as they could while they were still alive. (Nabou.com review)

Works Cited:

  1. Kerouac, Jack. On the Road. Penguin Book. New York. 1991
  2. Nabou.com Book Reviews. April 30, 2011. http://bookreviews.nabou.com/reviews/ontheroad.html
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1 Comment

Filed under Book Reviews

One response to ““On the Road” by Jack Kerouac

  1. Matthew,
    Very insightful look into “On the Road”. I completely agree with your assessment that “this novel gets unjustly placed as exclusively a “beat generation” book and is thus subconsciously limited in what can be drawn from it”. There are so many themes in this book that strike a chord with the human experience.

    When I first read this as a teen, the allure of the open road, of being able to pick up, go and travel anywhere is what pulled me in. Subsequent reads of “On the Road” as an adult 10 years later I focused more on the evolving relationship of Sal and Dean. The whole journey in the novel really made me think about it all, life death, interactions with friends and strangers, living for today, etc…

    I actually lent my first copy of the book to someone who I considered a very close friend at the time. We later had a major falling out – no idea if said friend ever read the book, but I never did get my copy back. Luckily the Original Scroll came out around the same time and that became my replacement copy. I am never lending it out!

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