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very mixed feelings
on 9 June 2013
Almost impossible to pick a star-rating for this one. Hated it and was often bored by it at the same time as being seriously impressed and occasionally wowed. I am very glad that I've read it, it will stay with me, and it reached places other books haven't reached.
It's impossible to like such selfish, amoral people, descending like locusts across America, free-loading off and laying waste the lives of their struggling, impoverished friends, relations and lovers as well as strangers and figures of authority, acquiring no insight or philosophy beyond a hunger for more in a search for "IT" that reminded me of similar futile journeys into self in the sixties.
It's hard to be interested in the repetitious succession of their exploits, described and thrown into the slipstream of whatever breakneck crossing of the continent we are now on. (Essential by the way to read this with an atlas at hand.)
What seriously impressed me was the writing! Yes, Kerouac bashed a draft out on a continuous roll of paper in 3 weeks, but this was NOT a first draft. Yes, he undertook these mad road-trips, but he spent most of his life at home with his mother writing and fretting about writing. In her introduction, Ann Charters (who knew and worked with Kerouac) tells in some detail how he had been struggling, rewriting, researching other writers, debating with other writers for years to find the emotionally-charged way of catching the thing about 'On the Road' that he wanted. The 3-week draft was an experiment in style to try to catch this. Still plagued by doubt he produced further drafts after this one. The critic, Cowley, who championed him and finally got the book published suggested revisions that he adopted to make it more readable. Additional changes were made without Kerouac's say-so by an in-house editor. What survives all the angst, and rewriting, and furious typing, and chopping, and cutting, and second thoughts is the emotionally-charged style he was after, and it is seriously impressive. The sense of the USA in all its vastness and variety is a first for this reader. Some of the descriptions of place, people and feeling are almost literally breathtaking.
By the end I was sad, not disappointed. For the characters, for Kerouac (who died in his 40s from an abdominal haemorrhage brought on by alcohol), and for America, both then and since. Ann Charters says Kerouac envisioned "On the Road" as a quest novel like "Don Quixote" or "The Pilgrim's Progress". And yes, there is more awareness of futility here than meets the eye. The narrator Sal shows often that he knows that he and Dean Moriarty are destroying lives, getting nowhere, ruining their health, wasting their youth, even as he rushes headlong to do more of the same, hoping the American dream will be around the next corner... "the point being that we know what IT is and we know TIME and we know that everything is really FINE."