On The Road

“But, no matter, the road is life” (211). In my copy of On The Road by Jack Kerouac, this line is not just underlined, but circled, no note next to it. What was I thinking at the time? Looking back now, I’m thinking of how Kerouac makes Sal Paradise’s first person narrative not just a compelling quest story because of the pure adventure of it, but a quest about the quest called life we are all on, looking for “IT” (127). Kerouac universalizes Sal’s story by making him more observer than actor, through the repetition of certain words and ideas, and through the lines that bloom out of Sal’s pen as he comes to insights that lead to the final answer for him, that IT isn’t knowing, because “nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old” (310) but that meaning [IT] comes through being present in each moment, in recognizing one’s place in nature as a small part of something larger and often incomprehensible, but beautiful:
So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies…and tonight the stars’ll be out…the evening star must be drooping and shedding her sparkler dims on the prairie, which is just before the coming of complete night that blesses the earth, darkens all rivers, cups the peaks and folds the final shore in” (310).
Sal is really more cameraman than actor in his own story, showing us where he goes, who and what he sees. Often he will declare an emotion, I was angry, for instance, or “I felt like an arrow that could shoot out all the way” (27), but he moves on quickly, shows us the next thing. He’s an inexhaustible cameraman, moving from close in conversations between people he’s with, to gritty close in descriptions of closed spaces, to wide-angle views of the beautiful nature that surrounds it all:
It was a wonderful night. Central City is two miles high; at first you get drunk on the altitude, then you get tired, then there’s a fever in your soul. We approached the lights around the opera house down the narrow dark street; then we took a sharp right and hit some old saloons with swinging doors. Most of the tourists were in the opera. We started off with a few extra-size beers. There was a player piano. Beyond the back door was a view of mountainsides in the moonlight. I let out a yahoo. The night was on” (53).
This passage because so neatly contains how he both describes the scene and then widens his lens again to see the mountains, the sky, the stars, the wide world. Sal is often looking to the mountains.
Our main character observes more than he acts, follows more than not, and is, in a sense, the unassuming, every man. We see this also in frequent references to his soul personified, “my whole soul leaped to it the nearer we got to Frisco” (59). This tale is universal in a grand human sense (soul) and also in the sense of describing the culture of a nation. Kerouac uses symbolism throughout to create a story that is also a cultural exploration, such as an American flag accidentally raised upside down by Sal, and in how at the start of Sal’s journey he travels to his first destination fed on the iconic American pie. And speaking of American\ America, I didn’t go through the entire book and count the number of times that one or the other of those words occur, but it is strikingly often, and Kerouac just as often refers specifically to the names of cities and waterways, and other landmarks more than he needs to, to emphasize the context of this story, which is without question about an American Dream of sorts.
Sal’s story is also made universal in those lines that just bloom out of nowhere with insight and that are carefully placed amidst gritty, realistic description and dialogue, such as “Prison is where you promise yourself the right to live” (132) or “Isn’t it true that you start your life a sweet child believing in everything under your father’s roof? Then comes the day of the Laodiceans, when you know you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked, and with the visage of a gruesome grieving ghost you go shuddering through nightmare life” (105). Even the use of second person here helps to asks universal questions, blur the line that distinguishes Sal from Dean or Carlo or any other American man trying to find meaning, in spite of everything, including his father.
I am not sure in particular at this moment, how I can apply this to my current work, but I see a broad connection. I am also writing a first person narrative that is also a quest for meaning and that I hope has universal appeal as On The Road does.

 

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