On the Road by Jack Kerouac

“hip flask slinging madman, steaming cafe flirts
they all spoke through you”

~Natalie Merchant

Paris, 2003

I woke up in a white room. There was a small window and two empty cots, one of which I was sprawled across, still in my clothes. I didn’t know what time it was or even what day, since I had arrived hours – or days – before and stumbled into the first hostel that I could find. The room I was in was miles down a long hallway that reminded me of a cold and soulless hospital corridor. It was dark and dozens of empty rooms ran the length of it. There was plaster on the uni-sex bathroom floor and cracks in the walls. I seemed to be the only one on the whole floor, which was the 22nd floor of a huge, old, building near Montmartre.

I seized my journal and scribbled down, from memory,  the following from On the Road:

“I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn’t know who I was – I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I’d never seen, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn’t know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost.”

~Jack Kerouac

After I was done writing, and satisfied by finding just the right quote to fit the moment, I went to take a shower and find out what time it was; what day; what neighborhood I was in and most importantly, a better hostel with more people in it.

Jack Kerouac. I used to dislike him. I think it was his blatantly sexist writing that really annoyed me. (Girls are portrayed as doormats and sex objects with no personality) But more than that – ten times more than that – I hated it when every single guy I knew absolutely worshipped this book and spent hours telling me how wonderful the Beat writers are – how since reading them their outlook had become different and their lives would never be the same.

(As if I were unfamiliar with Beat writers and this was a stunning idea. *she says scornfully. Me. Who has read simply everything. Its true. Even back then. What is it with men and them always having to instruct you in things? Here’s a clue, Ego, if I don’t respond except to say hmm, it probably means that I’ve either A. Been There, Done That or B. Am Not Interested or C. Both and in all cases it means that your blathering on about it is inconsiderate and dull.)

Besides that, it  just seemed so cliché to me; so typical and annoying of men to fall in love with the Pied Piper of Jack Kerouac and want his life: his devil-may-care tra-lal-la life dancing from one experience to the next with little thought of where he was going to be tomorrow or the next day.

Now that I’m older, more educated and a little wiser and tolerant (I hope) I recognize the thing in the novel that drew those guys.

Kerouac’s America.

Its a beautiful picture of the thing that leaves us as we get older. That feeling of being carefree and curious and excited about life. To have total freedom and live one’s life for the experience of being alive – not just thoughtlessly subscribing to a life of  business and mortgages and children and keeping up with the Jones’s.

What about the poetry – the beauty and joy of just saying yes to every experience and forgetting about those looming responsibilities? Responsibility catches up with all of us sooner or later, but for the window of time we have when we are truly free – we should make the most of it. That’s what On the Road is about, and probably why I came to admire it so late in life. You need a certain flexibility of ideas to read this book and really love it. Oddly, I didn’t have that flexibility until my mid-twenties. Weird. Go figure.

The writing is spectacular. All these post-war literary young men were looking for a new way to define their America, on their terms. They called themselves ‘beat’ because of the way the word expressed weariness; it hinted at being poor and downtrodden. They felt that the world was due for a change of vision, and set out to create that vision through literature and writing style. Jack Kerouac has been called the father of the Beat generation, but he was just one of quite a few guys who were all scribbling away in New York and Chicago and Denver and San Francisco, looking to transform the world through poetry.

Kerouac’s writing style is beautiful and lyrical. I love his vocabulary. He uses simple phrases, but they just drip with poetry and description. His characters are just a mix of his friends with different names and they are all delightfully insane.

“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…”

says Jack Kerouac, and that’s Dean Moriarty, his main character. I have known people like that. I have been people like that.

As you read, the twenty-first century you will be like: “Wow, so Dean is bipolar. Or schizophrenic. He could use some nice anti-depressants or perhaps some therapy.”

But the part of you that is flexible and free, will be slightly envious of his madness and wish you could emulate it. (Who’s the comedian who tells the story about the homeless guy who is having a conversation with no one and, seeing the comedian staring at him, asks insolently: Jealous? And the comedian admits he kind of was. Dean Moriarty is like that.)

These days, with our constant struggle for controlling the outcomes of our lives by dictating our emotions, our education, our careers etc., it’s easy to forget to allow yourself the freedom to love, live, breath and experience. Its something I constantly have to remind myself to do: allow myself less control.

Kerouac had the right idea about things. Be loose. Be free. Let stuff happen and go where the road takes you.

Live joyfully whenever you can.

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Filed under Autobiography, Literature

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