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Book Review—On the Road

By Jack Kerouac. Audible version narrated by Will Patton (2007). 11 hours, 8 minutes.

Originally published in New York by Viking Press, 1957.

A Review by D. Margaret Hoffman

If I had read this book when I was nineteen, I’d have loved it—the quest for freedom, the shirking off of rules, the youthful exuberance. But now all I see is a bunch of spoiled, inexperienced boys shrugging off all responsibility in an attempt to find a lifestyle that is unsustainable and, ultimately, nonexistent. To finance their travels, they mooch and steal and “borrow.” They hold temporary jobs (because they can rarely hold them for long) and travel with a destination in mind, but no real direction. What will they do when they arrive? The same thing they did at the last place. Drinking, drugging, whoring, sleeping it off and then driving somewhere else.

This is a boys’ club. Most women are paid sex partners or one-night stands. There are a few relationships and even some marriages with children, but they don’t hold our boys down for long because the road calls and off they go—back into the world of the irresponsible cloaked in the disguise of freedom. Our boys feel no real love for their wives and children that we can discern. “Home” is just a watering hole—a place to rest, recharge and make empty promises between trips. If there is love, it’s idealized. The versions of the women they “love” are fantasies that are sustainable only from a distance.

To narrator Sal Paradise, Dean Moriarty is the guru of the road. Fearless, amoral and immature, Dean feels connection only insofar as it benefits him. He comes and goes at will, the needs of his traveling partners notwithstanding. To his credit, he loves living and exhibits an appreciation of sensory stimuli. He talks incessantly and fills the room—or the car—with his observations and ruminations on any subject that pops into his head.

Sal, as a writer, appreciates this about Dean as is pulled into his orbit. But like the women they “love,” Dean as an ideal is different from Dean the reality. The great pontificator and purveyor of wisdom on one hand is a drug-addled, self-absorbed, dead-beat alcoholic on another. There’s no in between.

In the end, Dean has to go. Sal knows it. They part in New York City—Sal in the back of a Cadillac with a girl he just might stick with and Dean in the street on his way to Penn station. He’s heading back to Camille in San Francisco, but he’s trying to convince Inez to come from New York to California to live on the other side of San Francisco because wouldn’t that just be so convenient for him.

This parting is inevitable. If Sal is to have a chance at life, if he is to appreciate stability and his own place in the world, he must grow up—as do we all. Dean is the poster boy for hanging on to a fantasy that has long since died, so, if Sal is to evolve, Dean must go.

Will Patton is the reader of the Audible version of On The Road. He’s fantastic. Kerouac writes long, stream-of-consciousness description and a less able reader could make quite a mess of it. Patton breathes life into descriptions that might be tedious to read. He gives Moriarty a voice that expresses his love for the ideal he seeks and the evidence he sees of it everywhere. It helps us to see why Dean is able to suck people in with his enthusiasm and charisma. But it’s Sal as narrator who lets us know that, ultimately, Dean is a fraud and a cheat and that Sal’s image of Dean is a fantasy—even as he is drawn in himself. Patton’s vocal stylings make this clear, too.

If I had picked this book up to read, I might not have stayed with it. The prose style, to me, reflects the drugged fog in which Kerouac wrote this book—purportedly in three weeks. (That explains a lot.) Even with Patton’s expert performance, I wearied of the constant movement, the multiple attempts at reinvention and the pathetic need to keep the fantasy alive when it has become clear to everyone that Dean Moriarty is no Peter Pan.

And yes, I know that this book is a roman à clef, that it pays homage to the American poets of the Beat Generation and that it is touted by some as a great American novel. But it is also a eulogy to a lifestyle that, while fun for a while and romantic on the surface, is ultimately destructive, discriminatory and delusional.

In the end, all Sal can do is to try to hold on to the memory of his experiences on the road. It’s time now, finally, to try his hand at real life.

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