Jack Kerouac’s great Beat novel, a charming, honest and poignant story of a friendship and four trips across America, is in my opinion the best piece of writing to come out of the Beat Generation. Kerouac has sometimes been accused of leaving his talent back at the shop when he writes, but here his talent is undeniable. The writing is so good you start to hear fireworks going off like the Fourth of July by the time the book is over.
The narrator is Sal Paradise, a young novelist-to-be living with his aunt in Paterson, New Jersey. Sal has got a major Travelin’ Jones. Most of his friends happen to be out west already. A college friend has invited Sal to live with him in San Francisco, and Sal also wants to visit Denver, the home of his crazy friend Dean Moriarty. Dean Moriarty is a fast-talking, womanizing product of Denver reform schools who came to New York, improbably enough, to learn to be a writer. Sal idolizes Dean for his cowboy style, his ease with women and his exuberant joy in living. (Dean Moriarty is Jack Kerouac’s real-life crazy friend Neal Cassady, and almost everything in this book, as in all Kerouac’s books, really happened.)
The First Trip — New York To Denver to San Francisco to L.A.
Sal tries to hitch out west alone, but doesn’t get very far in his first try (see excerpt). He tries again, taking a bus to Chicago and hitching to Denver. The tales he tells of this first trip, with its flatboard-truck rides, innocent midwestern cornfield vistas and wild noisy truck stop luncheonette meals, make up one of the most beautiful portraits of America ever written.
Sal arrives in Denver, but discovers that his other friends have now ostracized Dean Moriarty for his wild ways. Sal has to choose between Dean and the rest of his old college crowd, and it’s no contest: he runs off with Dean. The only other friend who’ll still hang out with Dean is Carlo Marx, (in real life, Allen Ginsberg). Carlo and Sal and Dean clown around Denver for a while, until Sal takes off for San Francisco to stay with his friend Remi Bencoeur. Dean promises to join him soon after.
But Sal finds that Remi Bencoeur has a rotten job and a difficult girlfriend, and leaves for Southern California, where he meets Terry, a sweet-tempered Mexican girl, on a bus. He goes to work in the vineyards and cotton fields with Terry and her family for a while, and then returns to New York alone.
The Second Trip — Virginia to NY to New Orleans to San Francisco
Sal is staying with relatives in Testament, Virginia when Dean shows up at his door. A girlfriend named Marylou and a friend named Ed Dunkel are waiting in Dean’s car. Dean’s in a tough spot — he’s traveling with Marylou, but the girl he’s supposed to be with is Camille, who’s back in San Francisco getting ready to have his baby. Furthermore, Ed Dunkel left his nagging wife in Tuscon and has to pick her up at the home of Old Bull Lee (in real life, William S. Burroughs) in New Orleans.
Sal joins their joyride up to Paterson and New York and then down to New Orleans to stay with Old Bull Lee and his wife. Then they’re off to San Francisco, where Dean decides to return to Camille and dispose of Marylou by setting her up with Sal. Dean seems to get a kick out of setting his male friends up with his girlfriends, and Sal and Marylou go along with the plan, but they both feel used and find themselves hungry and bored and unable to depend on Dean for anything. Sal decides to go back home:
At dawn I got my New York bus and said good-by to Dean and Marylou. They wanted some of my sandwiches. I told them no. It was a sullen moment. We were all thinking we’d never see each other again and we didn’t care.
The Third Trip — New York to Denver to San Francisco and Back Again
Back in New York, Sal finds himself forgiving Dean, and even goes to Denver for no apparent reason except that he misses Dean. Finally he goes to San Francisco to find Dean at his house, and Dean recognizes the symbolic importance of this, saying: ‘You’ve finally come to me!’ Dean and Camille are having problems, and Sal’s arrival is the catalyst that breaks up their impromptu homelife. Out on the street, Dean and Sal need a place to stay and go to Ed Dunkel’s wife, only to receive a tongue-lashing, directed at Dean, that would wilt a houseplant. Everybody, it seems, is getting on Dean’s case now. The whole crowd goes to hear some live jazz (see excerpt) and then Dean and Sal set off for the East Coast, planning to travel from there to Italy.
They hitch to Denver, where they find somebody who needs a Cadillac driven to Chicago. This is a big mistake for the owner of the Cadillac, because Dean and Sal push the car beyond its limits and make the trip to Chicago in seventeen hours, leaving the car in less than perfect condition. They hear some more live jazz in Chicago, then wander back to New York.
The Fourth Trip — New York to Denver to Mexico
Sal’s first novel has been published, but he’s got the traveling bug again. He takes off for Denver by himself and Dean finds him there. They go off for one last bang-up ride down to Mexico, where they spend a riotous night in a small village with a roomful of prostitutes and an old Mexican grandma who sells marijuana from her backyard. Sal ends up getting extremely sick, and finds again that Dean is only good for the good times, because Dean leaves him there in his feverish state, rushing off on impulse to marry a new girlfriend in New York.
In a short section at the end, Sal and Dean briefly find each other in New York City, but Sal is committed to attend a Duke Ellington concert that night at the Metropolitan Opera with Remi Bencoeur and his girlfriend. He would rather be with Dean, but Remi and his girlfriend don’t like Dean, and in the end Sal drives off with his other friends, waving to Dean from the car window. That’s about where the book ends.
The ending is wonderfully ambiguous in terms of its meaning. Just what are we to think of Dean Moriarty? He is the most magnetic character in the book, but everybody in the book gets sick of him at one point or another, and even the narrator is forced to realize that he can’t depend on Dean to stick with him when he’s sick and miserable in Mexico. We also see that the joyrides get a little less joyful as they progress. Is it possible that people really do need to grow up, that you can’t ride on forever, going from adventure to the next? Luckily, this book doesn’t even attempt to answer that question for us; it just lets us experience the sights and sounds along the way.
‘On The Road’ was published by Viking Press in 1957.