On the Road, written by Jack Kerouac, is considered a defining work of the post-war period. Now, in case you are one of the few that has never heard of it, let me just give you a quick guide before you tackle this novel.
First and foremost: the writing style. If you read the “original scroll” version of the book (which I highly recommend, as the edited version is bullocks), be prepared for (literally) endless sentences. Kerouac does not use punctuation or uppercase letters, nor does he take grammar rules very seriously. The story goes that he wrote the whole book in one shot, over three uninterrupted weeks of old-school hammering on a type machine. The result: an entire novel expressed in one constant psychological flow on a single paper scroll, corresponding perfectly with the enigmatic image that Kerouac embodied. As he was the founder and most prominent poet of the Beat Generation, an anti-conformist and literary movement that emerged in New York during the 50s, it seems only natural for On the Road to be a living and breathing example of this genre. And so it is; the novel portrays the Beat movement’s members and habits effortlessly, resulting in a gripping, sometimes confusing, flowing and simultaneously eccentric masterpiece.
On the Road recounts the story of Jack Kerouac who, influenced by the incredible energy and enthusiasm of his friend Neal Cassady, called Dean Moriarty in the book, goes hitchhiking through America. The book is largely autobiographical and Cassady, friend of Kerouac, was also a key figure in the Beat Generation. The reader follows Kerouac’s journey and through him we meet many different sorts of people and places in America.
Likewise, we become acquainted with the Beat way of living. The Beat Movement was a counterculture; its members protested all materialistic things. Instead of getting carried away by mainstream culture, they were looking for new worlds to open up and new adventures to live.
On the Road is all about music because the Beat Generation was all about music (and well, acid, but we will look past that.) The story as a whole is complementary with jazz, bebop and occasionally rock & roll. This is only logical, since these are the music styles on which the Beat Generation had the biggest influence and vice versa. It comes as no surprise then that Kerouac’s novel is full of references to the artists of his time. As Howard Cunnell puts it in his introduction of the original scroll version of On the Road, this is the first – and probably the only – book you will ever read with an in-built soundtrack.
In short, this book is a must-read for all those interested in how the mind of a drug-addict works, all music lovers and all history fanatics, for very different but equally valid reasons. On the Road is possibly the supreme of American romance, even though it is acclaimed as a symbol of counterculture. Kerouac might have been an artist and a Beat poet, but however hard he tried, he was not immune to the charms of the American dream — is anyone?