On the Road. It’s a classic of global literature written by a man who decided to create a genre just because he was a bit rough and broken around the edges. He is Jack Kerouac, and his genre is, of course, Beat.
What’s interesting about the word “beat” is that, despite my belief that it had something to do with musical rhythm, perhaps as expressed in Ginsburg’s poetry, the true origin of the word is a completely different usage, more akin to the phrase “I’m beat.”
So, to get the real experience of this novel where men and women travel across the country several times with nothing but a bit of food money in their pocket when they set out, I should probably have read the book in a demolished paperback found at a charity store.
I didn’t. I read it in a beautiful Folio Society edition (pictured above), and am happy to say that I don’t regret it in the least. Reading about hardship in a luxury edition is somehow decadent in a way that the Beats–judging by how they acted when they had money–would have appreciated.
Anyhow, onto the book itself.
This one shares a problem with many seminal works: it’s been done over and over again, and the people who came after built on the good parts of Kerouac to refine the genre. Nevertheless, it’s still an un-put-down-able piece of literature, and I was genuinely saddened when it ended.
Simply stated, it bridged the generational gap between postwar youth and what I remember from being the same age: the same sense of adventure, the same preoccupations (with girls and sex, mostly), and the same questions regarding what life was actually about. That’s the reason the book is a timeless classic, and will remain so as long as late teens and twenty-something are allowed to be wild and free.
It’s also a wonderful celebration of youthful freedom, one that, seen from the point of view of a world in which the freedoms that adults enjoy are ever more regulated by a well-meaning society hell bent on protecting people from themselves, is hugely refreshing. Through Sal Paradise and his accomplices, we vicariously enjoy that wonderful age where everything seemed possible, even if it wasn’t strictly legal or morally correct.
If you haven’t read this one, you are missing an essential part of the American experience.
Gustavo Bondoni is a novelist and short story writer. He works in several genres, and his most recent work of mainstream literature is a book called Love and Death, which you can buy here.