I was fifteen when I first read “On The Road” by Jack Kerouac and recently, after twice as much lifetime lived, I was able to watch the film version directed by Walter Salles.
The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars. (Jack Kerouac, “On the Road”)
I was lucky to have an awesome English teacher (props to you Miss Jenner!) who indulged my interest in the Beat Generation as it grew up, mostly from voraciously consuming information about Bomb The Bass and the inspirations for their album Clear. Up until very recently I still had her photocopied copies of Ginsberg’s Howl with me and still have to this day the memories of that first read through “On The Road”. Not to mention the strains of 10,000 Maniacs’ “Hey Jack Kerouac”, their album leant to me by the history teacher (props to you Mr Armstrong!) who also provided his copy of “Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas” (viz, this post). Yes, it does appear that I went to the most amazing school ever - even if I did not realise it at the time!
Embarrassingly I still have memories of the night on my MSc at York seven years later when, having fallen in with “serious literary types” (i.e. someone who had written a short story once) I proceeded to drink two bottles of red wine, read aloud from “On The Road” in my best hipster voice, and then puked all over the kitchen table. Not my finest hour. Many pages of my copy of the novel are enlivened by flecks of red wine from that evening and I keep it as a reminder of the follies of overindulgence.
There are some spoilers in what follows but I’ll try to describe the plot in broad strokes. The novel is really a description of a series of experiences, those of being on the road. As such there is not too much of a plot to spoil. The film admirably tries to take this approach too but there’s obviously only so much they can show and so describing what happens may have more of a spoiling effect.
It is a timeless tale
“On The Road” is perhaps as much part of the mythology of America as the founding fathers, the war of independence, and the civil war. It is told in the first person and is basically autobiographical, telling the story of Sal Paradise (a cipher for Jack Kerouac) and his adventures on the road after the publication of his first novel “The Town And The City”. Most of Sal’s travels fixate on Dean Moriarty (in real life a Beat author named Neal Cassady) and also include Carlo Marx (a fictionalisation of Allen Ginsberg, perhaps the most important of the Beat writers after Kerouac) and Old Bull Lee (William S. Burroughs, the film of whose novel “The Naked Lunch” has already been discussed on this blog (about a year back as it happens).
All the events take place in the late 40s and early 50s for a generation of young men that came of age immediately after the war. Despite the aftermath of a world war, at that point it must have seemed as the American dream were very much a real thing: the war was won and American industry was now converting back to providing peace time goods. The seismic shocks of Elvis Presley, the civil rights movement, and Vietnam were all still years ahead. It was the short breath between the war and America’s own golden age.
And so, as part of a generation disconnected from its past and seemingly facing an uncertain part in their country’s future, “On The Road” ends up not being about very much in particular other than its generation’s own rootlessness. This is expressed as a travelogue that borders on hagiography, almost as a way of convincing the participants of their place and worth. Nothing much happens: they travel back and forth across the states, there are parties and women and drugs. There are cars and there is jazz.
Its existence is as much the story as the novel
By the time fifties were over Jack Kerouac, eager to write a follow up to “The Town And The City” sat down to write his memories of being on the road. He typed the whole novel on to a single scroll of paper and aimed to write in as immediate and spontaneous a way as possible. Sentences roll over one another and burst at the seams with excitable descriptions of even the more banal episodes that occur.
When it’s good, it is amazing. When it isn’t, well let’s say that Truman Capote was partly correct when he famously said of “On The Road”:
That’s not writing, that’s just typing.
I think the good outweighs the bad and I like the formlessness of the plot, it means that I can pick it up, flick to any page, and usually find an episode worth reading for a bit.
Some thoughts on the movie
I enjoyed the film much more than I thought I would. I don’t like long films and the fact that it ran for over two hours, added to the loose plot of the book, would lead to a movie that went on forever and made no sense. As it turned out, the screenwriters did a pretty good job of condensing the novel into a movie that’s almost as good as Salles’ previous “The Motorcycle Diaries”.
I really liked Sam Reilly and Garret Hedlund in their roles as Sal and Dean. Meanwhile I wasn’t that convinced by Kristen Stewart as Marylou, I just kept seeing how much she seemed to be enjoying not being in a Twilight movie for a change. Kirsten Dunst is usually good value whatever she happens to be in and she is fine form here as the steely Camille.
The film did a good job of reminding me about episodes in the book that I had forgotten. It missed out the bit with Sal alone in Times Square, which was one of my favourite bits in the book. Some of the film suffers from not having Sal’s commentary on what happens but in general this is done with some good use of voiceover. I think the film heightens the discord that exists between Sal and Dean by the end of the novel for dramatic effect, whereas the book explores the notion that both guys are different sides of the same coin.