Published 5th September 1957
A contemporary classic that is hotly debated in literature circles, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road is liberating. It was released in post-World War II America and was a breath of fresh air in a time where the country was coming to grips with what had happened. The story is told by one Sal Paradise, a young man from New York who longed to get away from the daily grind. When some of his friends move out West, he decides to follow them, hitchhiking his way to San Francisco, detailing the interactions with those that he meets on his journeys. Throughout the book he returns to New York, and then sets out on travels several times, all the while following his best friend Dean.
“This is what I dislike about the book however: Dean is a real arsehole”
This is what I dislike about the book however: Dean is a real arsehole. His character is unbearable, constantly switching between his wife and his pregnant girlfriend, committing crimes, and corrupting those around him. Because the book is split up into acts several years apart at a time, Dean has the chance to mature, and is presented with many opportunities to settle down and stop hurting people. But he can’t and/or won’t. Our protagonist, however, looks up to him like a Saint, admiring how free his best friend is, despite describing him so:
His specialty was stealing cars, gunning for girls coming out of high school in the afternoon, driving them out to the mountains, making them, and coming back to sleep in any available hotel bathtub in town.
He represents a similar character to Tyler Durden in Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club; he’s what Sal wants to be, but our narrator is too attached to his desire to stay grounded, have a house and a job. As they travel across the country several times, with Dean breaking the law on numerous occasions, you find yourself screaming at the book, begging, just begging Sal to stop defending Dean and to instead travel or stay with some of his other friends that we are introduced to – ones who aren’t immature criminals.
To enjoy this book, you have to put yourself in the shoes of the author, and look at America the way he was looking at it; new and reborn, ready to be seized by those brave enough to venture out of their normal lives, no matter for how brief a time. The book is often credited as the “bible of the beat generation”. That is, it helped to start the hippie movement, with its tales of sex, drugs, and living on the road. If you look at Dean and realise that he is trapped in a prison of unattainable freedom, then you can enjoy this story that makes you want to step outside and just explore a new, open land, and be free from the stresses that everyday life produces.