Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Finishing On the Road

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?


Tom Jackson said...

I've recommended Ken Kesey's second novel, "Sometimes A Great Notion," here before, and from your description of "On The Road," it looks similar. There's the same uncertainty about who's telling the story, the same picking up of different details every time you read it -- in Kesey's case, to the extent that the story can change significantly on later readings. If you want to see what the first post-Beat generation of writers did with Kerouac's legacy, Kesey would be a good start.

John said...

That sounds interesting.

I read a bit about how Kesey and Kerouac split and Kesey became a more significant leader of the movement.

Tom Jackson, you are ever a font of fascinating suggestions.

jockeystreet said...

I could be wrong, but I believe Cassady and much of the rest of the crew that Kerouac wrote about did not take it entirely well. There was a "falling out," I believe, after the books came out.

Most of Kerouac's books are written this way. He changes the names of the characters from book to book, though, so it's sometimes hard to tell who is who from one to the other (especially if any time passes in between reads). He had planned to one day edit them and use everyone's real names, put them in chronological order, etc. But then he drank himself to death before getting around to it.