On the Beat Road

12 Jul

I’ve finally got round to reading Jack Kerouac’s famous novel, On the Road. I had mixed expectations. It’s  heralded as the beat novel, a book that spawned the sticking-up of a million thumbs along highways across America and surely beyond. But I’d heard little to recommend it from other readers: that it was a disappointment, a let down, full of false poetics. In actual fact, I found it very enjoyable. It is definitely a book to be read voraciously, rather than dipped into; the story tumbles at full speed downhill, and sometimes its hard to keep up with the place, the time, the people involved. And there is also perhaps something to be said for reading it at an age where one can look upon the youthful exuberance and romantic notions of ‘the road’ with some rose-tinted spectacles. For those who read it at a younger age, I suspect the all-pervading cynicism of adolescence might have made it hard to enjoy and understand Sal and his gang’s quest for endless kicks. After all, Sal (read Kerouac) was hovering around the thirty mark in the book itself.  A late-twenty something approaching the last orders hour of youthful carefreedom might better identify with the beat mode of thinking which predated the tune in and drop out slogan of the sixties, than a teenager looking for autonomy and individuality.

The parts which I most enjoyed were those which actually took place on the road itself. Sal’s  isolation combined with his intrepid sense of adventure were a palpable mix. For me, the cold, dark and sometimes haunting images of his travels across the vast country really resonated.

It would be impossible to replicate such a series of journeys today. For the modern traveller, the idea of sticking a thumb out and hoping for a ride with a stranger is less than appealing. Especially if you’ve seen The Hitchhiker. But it’s also less than legal in most places. Even at the time, replicating Sal Paradise’s travels would have been extremely difficult for a woman to do alone. But for a nostalgic lover of Americana and counterculture, one can always dream. With rose-coloured spectacles securely on, that is.

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