REVIEW: On the Road by Jack Kerouac

Audio CD, 10 disks (11 hours)
Published October 1st 2000 by HarperAudio (first published 1957)
ISBN:  0694523607
setting:  United States
4 stars overall /4.5 stars audio narration
Goodreads Synopsis:
This unabridged version of Jack Kerouac’s classic novel On the Road is  narrated by actor Matt Dillon.  The CD box set is beautifully packaged with black-and-white photographs of Kerouac and Neal Cassady, the real-life model for the character Dean Moriarty.
My Thoughts:
Having read a number of beat generation authors during my college years, I was firmly convinced that I would never again traverse that literary movement.  The bohemian lifestyle, days infused with alcohol, drugs and indiscriminate sex, and general abdication of any responsibilities are things that I find difficult to relate to and (usually) fairly uninteresting.  And true to form, Jack Kerouac’s On the Road is a book about exactly those things…with no real discernible point…a meandering, loosely autobiographical travelogue of his (Jack’s) adventures and misadventures on the road with his friend Neal Cassady.
And yet, it is very much more than that, as it turns out.
It’s not that the subject matter is important.  It’s not.  Neither is it because Kerouac had some great epiphany during his time on the road.  If he did, it wasn’t immediately obvious.  Rather, it is HOW Kerouac told his story…with language so beautiful and poetic that you can’t help but sink into the story and soak up his magnetic prose.  Truly, I could read (or listen to, in this case) writing of this calibre continually, because like beautiful flawless music, it moves me & touches me in ways that something mediocre simply can’t.  At the end of the day, I don’t think it mattered what Kerouac wrote about (for me), it mattered that he wrote it exquisitely and made even the most mundane intriguing.
Perhaps if I had read this 20 years ago, the subject itself would have resonated more with me.  I mean, it is a classic young person’s adventure:  no responsibilities, no money, no ties to any one place, no set plan, no hurrying, no guiltridden angst at the hedonism of it all.  I’ll confess that at age 20 I longed for the feelings of freedom reckless abandon that suffuse this travel tale, but at the end of the day I was too eaten up with guilt and angst to have been able to truly enjoy the ride.  Kerouac was not. and while he did not have Dean’s completely unbridled exhilaration for every moment on the road, he did take a quieter, more observant joy in his experiences, which is over-archingly present through the book.
I doubt I would call it a must read as books go, but if you have an opportunity to listen to Matt Dillon narrate these poetic words with his perfectly pitched bass voice, don’t skip it.  He enhances Kerouac’s poetic language to a performance art, and it is definitely worth the listen.
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4 Comments

  1. My misspent youth didn’t include On the Road. I’d like to get to it one of these days, but have quite a few that I think I need to get to before it. I was interested to read your thoughts though Laura.

  2. You hit it when you said the genius of the book is in the stylistic device itself. And yet the subject matter is noteworthy too. It’s about that restless post-WWII generation unseduced by the Eisenhower utopia of suburban contentment. You’re right. Sal Paradise is the sideline sitter. It about breaks him to work up the nerve to talk up the Mexican woman on the bus (which eventual dalliance became a Playboy exerpt). And so the outlaw Dean becomes the radiating center of the book; surely, without Dean, more than anything, there is no book. I remember in particular the trip to balmy Louisiana for a visit with mordant Old Bull Lee, and the commentary on Sal’s feeling estranged as a “white man” in Denver, wandering, and a slew of other, transcendent moments. There’s a moment on page 15 when he wakes up in a railroad shack and forgets how he got here, and even forgets who he is. it’s remarkable. I believe the entire book is a spiritual journey, about a wandering ghost looking for a home in America. It’s been said by William Burroughs, and I see what he means, that the rolling poetry of the last paragraph, an immortalization of the mad saint Dean, recalls the famously gorgeous ending paragraph of Joyce’s “The Dead.”
    (I shoot my mouth off on my own kulchurwolf.com now and then.)

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