Kerouac, you either love him or you hate him. Regardless, he’s one of the most influential writers of the twentieth century. His second novel, On the Road, was published in an America that was divided and exceedingly paranoid. Kerouac and his fellow beat writers stood unique as catalysts for change. Precursors for the hippie movement and an opposition to the criminalisation of communism in the USA. On the Road focuses on the America that Jack Kerouac saw, an America full of drugs, gallivanting adventures and sleazy jazz bars. Kerouac equally received critical praise and backlash, and On the Road has now become one of literary history’s great enigmas. As writers, the novel offers perspective into a stream of conscious style, pacing and the American culture. Whether you’ve read the book before or have no idea who Jack Kerouac is, I’ll try to explain why I believe that On the Road belongs on every writer’s bookshelf. 

I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up. I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won’t bother to talk about, except that it had something to do with the miserably weary split-up and my feeling that everything was dead.

While living in New York with his Aunt, Sal Paradise feels purposeless and empty. He aspires to be a writer but has no experience in his life to draw from, he is confused and unsure of what to do with his time. With the coming of Dean Moriarty, Sal begins his life on the road. Gallivanting around America in search of good times and kicks. Dean Moriarty becomes Sal’s answer to his troubles, he is drawn to the flamboyant and eccentric character like a moth to the flame and they burn together on a long adventure across the country, thieving and partying with one aim: having a good time.     

This is the story of America. Everybody’s doing what they think they’re supposed to do.

Kerouac was a strong believer in individuality and being whatever you wanted. Sal Paradise also recalls these feelings, believing that America is a place where everyone has a purpose but believes their purpose to be wrong or misinformed. Sal sees past a traditional American philosophy and tests the waters of other ideas. Kerouac tells us that there is no certainty for America’s youth, tying into the nihilistic and existential ideas explored in the philosophy of Albert Camus and Frederiech Nietzsche, Kerouac paints a picture of an American youth which has been beaten, confused and forgotten. Sal Paradise embodies this identity, as he ventures round the country with no purpose other than to have a good time and seek out adventure, the antics seem to get crazier and crazier as the novel progresses. Kerouac tests the ideology of the American dream with his novel to its absolute limit, questions morality and captures his unique vew on 1950s America.       

What’s your road, man? – holyboy road, madman road, rainbow road, guppy road, any road. It’s an anywhere road for anybody anyhow. Where body how?

As a result of this feverish and sporadic ideology, Kerouac’s prose throughout the novel is interesting and reflects these ideas. Many people find the stream of consciousness annoying but when I read the book I really enjoyed it. The prose is almost like a challenge to the reader, adding further to the sense of confusion that many Americans felt at the time. Sal’s deranged adventure is captured perfectly by such a demented literary style… In my opinion anyway!   

The only people that interest me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing.. but burn, burn, burn like roman candles across the night. 

As drug fuelled journeys, kick driven escapades and ambiguous encounters get crazier and crazier, burning with the enthusiasm of a naked flame, our characters inevitably begin to burn out. Although the prose of On the Road has drawn negative critical reception, there are equally beautiful passages like this one. Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty’s adventures teach us a great many things but perhaps most importantly that if we burn, burn, burn we inevitably cause harm and damage to ourselves and others. Desire and lust never last forever; it burns out when there is nothing to fuel it further. Kerouac questions morality whether it’s worth it to pursue a desire and a lust for life or if it’s morally wrong to embark on the journeys that his characters do. How far should we go when seizing the day? Ultimately it’s up to the reader to decide; what is the road you will take?    

There was nowhere to go but everywhere, so just keep on rolling under the stars.

Jack Kerouac, On the Road

What’s Your Road, Man?

What do you guys think of On the Road? Have you read the book before and is there anything I might have missed? Let me know down in the comments. if you have any philosophies on this abstract and interesting work of fiction please let me know!