On the Road, on Kerouac’s birthday

Jack Kerouac

Jack Kerouac

Today Is the birthday of Jack Kerouac (March 12, 1922 – October 21, 1969), whom I started reading again last night. I hit On the Road again, which is a joy to read. Especially the early chapters, where the narrator Sal Paradise meets Dean Moriarty and embarks on his travels, which take him all the way across America from the East Coast to the West Coast, to Mexico, and back.

You are blown away by the sheer exuberance, the references to jazz, popular culture, and the colourful writing. Here is Sal describing Dean:

My first impression of Dean was of a young Gene Autry—trim, thin- hipped, blue-eyed, with a real Oklahoma accent—a sideburned hero of the snowy West.


Though the story begins and ends in New York and New Jersey, what comes across is the narrator’s love of the West.

Here is Sal describing Dean again:

His dirty workclothes clung to him so gracefully, as though you couldn’t buy a better fit from a custom tailor but only earn it from the Natural Tailor of Natural Joy… And his “criminality” was not something that sulked and sneered; it was a wild yea-saying overburst of American joy; it was Western, the west wind, an ode from the Plains, something new, long prophesied, long a-coming (he only stole cars for joy rides)… A western kinsman of the sun, Dean.

An Easterner, Sal revels as he hitchhikes across the Midwest to the High Plains, Denver and the Rocky Mountains. He is thrilled, hitching a ride on a truck out of Iowa City for places farther out West:

Now I could see Denver looming ahead of me like the Promised Land, way out there beneath the stars, across the prairie of Iowa and the plains of Nebraska, and I could see the greater vision of San Francisco beyond, like jewels in the night.

Jazz

He is a young man in love with the West – a writer and a jazz aficionado. The music is never far from his mind. When he stops in Chicago, of course, he listens to jazz:

At this time, 1947, bop was going like mad all over America. The fellows at the Loop blew, but with a tired air, because bop was somewhere between its Charlie Parker Ornithology period and another period that began with Miles Davis.

Later, listening to other musicians in Chicago, the narrator mulls over the whole history of jazz:

Once there was Louis Armstrong blowing his beautiful top in the muds of New Orleans; before him the mad musicians who had paraded on official days and broke up their Sousa marches into ragtime. Then there was swing, and Roy Eldridge, vigorous and virile, blasting the horn for everything it had in waves of power and logic and subtlety –leaning to it with glittering eyes and a lovely smile and sending it out broadcast to rock the jazz world. Then had come Charlie Parker, a kid in his mother’s woodshed in Kansas City, blowing his taped-up alto among the logs, practicing on rainy days, coming out to watch the old swinging Basie and Benny Moten band that had Hot Lips Page and the rest — Charlie Parker leaving home and coming to Harlem, and meeting mad Thelonious Monk and madder Gillespie – Charlie Parker in his early days when he was nipped and walked around in a circle while playing.

You get the narrator’s feel for jazz. Here he is describing a solo:

… it was a soft, sweet, fairy-tale solo on an alto. Lonely as America, a throatpierced sound in the night.

Remarkably, On the Road was written on a continuous roll of paper over three weeks. Then it went through several drafts before Kerouac completed it in 1951. First published by Viking Press in 1957, it soon became a classic.

What I love best is the ending where, back home from his travels, the narrator muses on the vast land he has seen and thinks of his old friend, Dean Moriarty. It’s a panoramic vision of America.

So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it, and in Iowa I know by now the children must be crying in the land where they let the children cry, and tonight the stars’ll be out, and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear? 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, and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.

Here are some of the places mentioned in On the Road: New York, Chicago, Detroit, Cheyenne, Denver, San Francisco, Oakland, Bakersfield, Los Angeles, San Antonio. Sorry, I could not include all the places covered in the book.

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