Re-Reading On the Road

OK, so I threw my dog-eared paperback copy into the backseat of my car, late last night. I had wolfed this book down this hot summer back in July for the umpteenth time and at first, it made me laugh, full of joy again and I was in awe and exhilirated.

I have read this damn thing many times in sweet escapist joy but this second time in a month I re-read last week, well, it was different the last time around. Across the miles and moils of years, this time the second rush of ending summer seemed more painful than before. I wept. Dean was a rat, and Sal retaliated, and I bummed.

I had re-re-read it in a two-day period over an August weekend, and now I was stunned. Exhiliration turned into despair, and then I saw the truth.

On The Road is a tale of coming of age and maturing and then moving on.

There is that famous first passage…

“But then they danced down the street like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!””

Then … the cruel ending.

“…So Dean couldn’t ride uptown with us and thing I could do was sit in the back of the Cadillac and wave at him…Dean ragged in a motheaten overcoat he bought specially for the freezing temperatures of the East, walked off alone, and I saw of him he rounded the corner of Seventh Avenue, eyes on the street ahead, and bent to it again … Old Dean’s gone, I thought, and out loud I said ‘He’ll be all right. And off we went … I was thinking of Dean, and how he got back on the train and rode over three thousand miles over that awful land and never knew why he had come anyway, except to see me.”

Dean, not allowed into the car, not shambling but shuffling on his way back to the West and back to immortality (and death).

Same as Jack. Though he chose, at the end, the East, foreswearing Dean for who he was …

I wonder, how do you feel about a book you hold dear to your heart, in grave affinity when you are young and then discover, either you, or the book, something later inside you had changed?

I realized nothing had changed but America. I praise this book. But I have aged. Is the experience the same as the first time you read it? Or, do you feel different? And everything after that, does nothing ever feel the same like that?

It makes me wonder. Do you?

13 Responses

  1. that’s not writing, it’s
    that’s not writing, it’s typing

    few remember capote
    but kerouac
    spoke the worded

    “…someday Dean’s going to go on one of those trips and never come back.”

  2. Auld Lange SyneJota – just
    Auld Lange Syne

    Jota – just reading your recap made me well up w/ emotion, made me think back to the first time I read On the Road in the summer of ’80 when I was 15. And then again when I was 18 experiencing my own road trip of a lifetime w/ The Book in my pocket.

    And now, with my own book coming out next month based on that trip, I realize how much I’ve changed, but the feelings, the emotions are still there, though buried, and everytime you reread Jack they have a curious way of bubbling to the surface.

    (You’ve made me want to reread The Book again, and I think I will next month on vacation, on my miniature road trip to NC, surrounded by the trappings of my accumulated life so different from the past.)

  3. jota …Thanks for that
    jota …

    Thanks for that memory blast, Jota. Some books you can just carry around like vitamin packs in your pocket, and fortify yourself with them when most needed. This is one of the few.

    And, different every time around? Yeah, because whatever it is in your life that you need to break away from the way Sal needed to break away from his home in New Jersey, that’s what the book is going to be about, every time you pick it up.

  4. chop wood, carry water, mr.
    chop wood, carry water, mr. J

    I always felt that On The Road ends with a cautionary message. One might think the publisher insisted on it, to justify their endorsement of the book (so they could say, “See, we allowed all this wild behavior but there is a lesson at the end”) but I believe the way Jack tells it is how it really happened. Which is another example of Jack Kerouac being in the cosmos at just the right line-up of stars. It was the truth, and what the editor needed.

    The part I remember near the end – I don’t have the book with me so I can’t quote it exactly – is where Dean can barely talk. You can interpret this scene on different levels. Either he is too tired or too wired, either losing his mind or finding his nirvana where speech is unnecessary.

    Sometimes I want to live in a perpetual road trip so bad, my heart aches. Other times it’s nice to have a home.

    Here is an old proverb I like:

    “Before I was enlightened, I chopped wood and carried water. After I was enlightened, I chopped wood and carried water.”

    Your outward appearance & actions don’t necessarily change after you have an epiphany, but inside you are different and will never see things the same again; there is a golden glow inside that has changed you forever.

  5. I think Jack drank a lot
    I think Jack drank a lot because the there was something unresolved about his inner glow that was too emotionally difficult to deal with.

  6. You Can’t Go Home AgainOn The
    You Can’t Go Home Again

    On The Road is a tale of coming of age and maturing and then moving on.

    Listen to this

    I think all Kerouac’s books were about this is some way. And, as sampled in the sound bite linked to above, Kerouac states it clearly.

    Just about all lasting literature is because that is all we have as human being living in time on this Earth.

    Look at how Desolation Angels ends, as I recall, “A new life for me”.

    Vanity of Duluoz, Hic Challice (sic, I’m sure) — keep the cup full — the new phase is simply to drink.

    Vs Dr Sax, moving from childhood. “By God” (not a pun), he puts a flower over his ear, then the other.


    Thanks for this. I haven’t re-read Kerouac in a long time.

  7. Excellent, tkg! Thank you.
    Excellent, tkg! Thank you. For those who have trouble understanding the recording, Jack is saying, “We had to go on with other phases of our lives.” I have that recording in a boxed set of Kerouac recordings.

  8. I quote this poem in Jota’s
    I quote this poem in Jota’s honor…

    by Alfred Lord Tennyson

    I cannot rest from travel: I will drink
    Life to the lees: all times I have enjoy’d
    Greatly, have suffer’d greatly, both with those
    That loved me, and alone; …
    For always roaming with a hungry heart
    Much have I seen and known….
    I am part of all that I have met;
    Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
    Gleams that untravell’d world, whose margin fades
    For ever and for ever when I move….
    To follow knowledge like a sinking star,
    Beyond the utmost bound of human thought….
    The long day wanes: the slow moon climbs: the deep
    Moans round with many voices. Come, my friends,
    ‘Tis not too late to seek a newer world.
    Push off, and sitting well in order smite
    The sounding furrows; for my purpose holds
    To sail beyond the sunset, and the baths
    Of all the western stars, until I die.
    It may be that the gulfs will wash us down:
    It may be we shall touch the Happy Isles,
    And see the great Achilles, whom we knew.
    Tho’ much is taken, much abides; and tho’
    We are not now that strength which in the old days
    Moved earth and heaven; that which we are, we are;
    One equal-temper of heroic hearts,
    Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
    To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.

  9. I think I’m up to 4 readings
    I think I’m up to 4 readings of OTR. It’s timeless and tireless. My first reading was cumbersome and awkward: simply put I hadn’t aged enough to appreciate it. The last two readings have been joyous and prophetic and I guard my tattered and highlighted penguin classic addition. My next favorite Kerouac book is The Dharma Bums- Desolation Angels ain’t too shabby, either.

  10. Brooklyn, you are so right.
    Brooklyn, you are so right. This is one damned book that fortifies my soul in the darkening American night and me in the West and you in the East and sometime, somewhere, I hope we meet.

    Vitamins for the soul. Dah you go, man, dah you go.

  11. Mr. Hill, congrats on your
    Mr. Hill, congrats on your forthcoming book. I am one of your far-off admirers. You’ve been through a lot, I can tell.

    Thanks for the post.

  12. They all went mad, Bill.
    They all went mad, Bill. Still, I know what you mean. I quit my job at the A&P and nobody remembers that it changed me for EVER.

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