I added On The Road to my reading list this year under the Classics section; books I felt had some cultural or literary significance that are often required in high school curricula but that I had missed during my own teen years. The book has landed on Time’s 100 Best English-Language Novels and lists like this, along with generally being considered the quintessential novel of the Beat Generation, so I felt like it would be worthwhile to have it under the belt.
I’ve started On The Road multiple times in the last few years, never getting Sal much farther than Des Moines in the beginning chapters. For some reason, the book never grabbed me then, and it certainly didn’t grab me now. It took me several weeks to finish this, usually because I’d get bored after a chapter or two.
Quick overview: the book is about Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty; their friendship and adventures as they travel across America several times and a trip down to Mexico in the late ’40s.
So why did I find myself slogging through this book? I’d attribute it mainly to writing style and characters. First off, this was written in the ’50s, before authors were forced by public demand to write books that kept them turning pages. So this is less a slight towards Kerouac’s style, and more just a recognition that it wasn’t for me. Even the more ethereal stuff, the jazz club scenes or the bordello scene at the end, it’s just felt too foggy for me to really grab on to. Maybe it was a good description of drug use and the general feelings of short-lived euphoria that accompany the lifestyle of the protagonists but I found myself struggling to live in this world.
Aside from that, I just didn’t like Sal, much less Dean. Sal was fine until he betrays himself to be a spineless-ish man who is constantly overpowered by the presence and person of Dean Moriarty. And Dean himself. I haven’t been this annoyed by a character since Holden Caulfield. Dean is reckless, unfaithful, selfish, bordering on ADHD. He’s exactly the kind of person I would not want to be friends with in real life. He floats along the whole book, never taking responsibility for any of his actions, never concerned about the welfare of those around him or the consequences of any of his decisions, nor the repercussions of those decisions on those close to him. He’s the textbook hedonist, always looking for it, for the thing that will make him happy or feel alive.
I have a strong hunch that my negative reaction to this book is by and large contextual. It truly could be the perfect picture of post-WWII disillusionment for 20-somethings. The problem is that I couldn’t make myself care about that as I was reading. From my perspective, these characters were bums, deadbeats. Couldn’t commit, couldn’t stay in one place, couldn’t choose a less glamorous life path even if it meant some semblance of security and safety.
Am I the grumpy middle-aged father in every teen-based story? Am I Red Foreman, or the dancing-hating dad from Footloose? I feel like my thoughts on this book were very white-collar, all-work-and-no-play, dreams-get-you-nowhere, Korean War-vet type of thoughts. I honestly couldn’t help it as I read.
This is the same thing I ran into a few months back when I read Catcher In The Rye. For me, it was contextual. Had I read it in high school, I’m sure I would’ve deeply identified with Holden Caulfield (or Sal and Dean, had I read On The Road in my angsty college years). Reading Holden now is like having to listen to an insufferable teenager whine about why his life is unfair and everybody’s out to get him. Subsequently, reading Dean now is watching people of my current age eschewing smart decisions for a live-fast-die-young sort of lifestyle. Dean’s choices aren’t sustainable, and if they are, they lead to a pretty miserable life, which is where he ended up, multiple wives, kids from all over, no prospects and no future.
Am I just completely off base here? If you’ve read On The Road and it was life-altering for you, tell me why. I feel like I missed something. Or maybe I didn’t and the whole point is that life is sad and the quest for happiness is futile. Either way, not my favorite book.