Last night, I finished reading Jack Kerouac's On the Road.
It's said to be a semi-autobiographical novel in which Kerouac is represented by the narrator, Sal Paradise. Numerous other characters have been identified by scholars as different figures in the Beat movement.
But Kerouac did something that I don't think I've ever seen in another novel. In most novels, the reader knows who is the main character within the first chapter or two. The conventional structure of a novel makes it plain early on who is the focus of the plot. I hadn't realized this until Kerouac presented a different way of structuring his novel.
But On the Road isn't an autobiographical novel -- not in the strictest sense. It's not about Sal Paradise. It's about Dean Moriarty.
This is not plain at the outset of the novel, when Dean is simply one of many people in Sal's life. But as it progresses, Dean increasingly becomes the topic of the bulk of the text. And while one can infer much about Sal's personality, Kerouac describes Dean's nature directly and repeatedly.
Critics think that Dean is based upon Beat icon Neal Cassady, which makes the novel even more interesting. If true, On the Road is, in a way, a hagiography of Cassady. He is a deeply flawed hero. But no matter how irresponsible Dean is -- even when he abandons the dysentery-stricken Sal in Mexico City -- Sal reveres him. Dean is the "Holy Goof" -- whose joy captivates Sal and inspires only devotion.
So On the Road is a tribute by Kerouac to one of his friends. I wonder what Cassady thought of the novel when he read it?