Mad to live
by Satyajit Sarna | December 23, 2010
Neal Cassady on the left; Jack Kerouac on the right.
Image above and article thumbnail is from tiseb's photostream on Flickr.
If The Great Gatsby was a monument to disillusion and rot, On The Road was a passport to revelation, a promise that the grey ferment of post-war institutions was going to crack and spill out generations of discoverers and creators. When it was published, millions of young people poured out into the streets, all chasing the same conviction that there was a free new world taking shape, coalescing out of debris. They were all chasing the same thing.
“Somewhere along the line I know there’d be girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me.”
And so, Sal Paradise starts out for the West in ill-suited shoes, the great bulk of the American continent hulking unknown, chasing the news of his friends moving like pieces on a board. In Denver, Chad King is excavating Indian artefacts, Roland Major is writing short stories in his dressing gown. Carlo Marx is psychologically treating Dean Moriarty – “We’ve had to take Benzedrine. We sit on the bed, crosslegged, facing each other. I have finally taught Dean that he can do anything he wants, become mayor of Denver, marry a millionaress, or become the greatest poet since Rimbaud. But he keeps rushing out to see the midget auto races.”
Dean Moriarty is Kerouac’s greatest invention, the “holy con-man with the shining mind”, the spirit that forces him to hitchhike and traipse and fall in with madmen. After years in reformatories and prisons, “where you promise yourself the right to live”, he rushes through the world with endless energy, falling in love and out, driving and parking cars for money, stealing them for kicks, practicing life like an art form. And talking, always talking - Dean issues proclamations, injunctions, a never-ending stream of prose poetry rich with a throbbing vein of joy, the joy of life to be lived, the life of dreams chased and the sorrow of their passing. A constant stream of superlatives flows from him, everything is the “biggest”, the “greatest”, the “hippest” – everything is animated with the maximalism of the eternal present.
Dean Moriarty electrifies and lives outside these pages, continues in minds and memories as a lure, the bagman waiting for you to join him. He lives forever in a world where you could wake up tomorrow and not know where you are, catch a bus to nowhere now, and ride with strangers who will be your new friends. Tomorrow morning, you could be loading morning glory seeds into a shotgun and firing it at hillsides as you pass, like a psychoactive Johnny Appleseed. Forget your job and family and responsibilities; you can have new ones tomorrow, if you ever want such things again.
To some, all of this means nothing. They’re just words in a book, imaginary people in a faraway land in a time past. They can read the story and shut this book and all of these people and things go away. Neither Kerouac nor I have any words for those people. If they can read about hopping freights as they curve around the golden hills of California in the sun, read about the back of pickup trucks under the giant clear starry skies of the mid-west, spend two weeks in a Mexican brothel, jump from jazz joint to jazz joint, and can then shut this book and go back to making tables or lists of dates and not experience a sense of revulsion, then I cannot understand them. I have no empathy for those who are not seduced by On The Road.
I first read On The Road in a Signet paperback edition that I found on my father’s shelf. The front cover had a rising sun sinking into clouds; the back promised me, in giant letters, Sex, Drugs, Travel. The offer was too rich. In my own compromised way, I followed. In the years after I read it, I travelled by bus, by train, by truck, by cement mixer, by bullock cart, with tickets, without tickets, alone, with company, by day, by night, by stealth, by stupidity, by accident, frequently broke, with or without a clear destination; like a talisman, I carried it with me back and forth across South India. That copy my friend’s girlfriend left in a bus stop, somewhere in Tamil Nadu. Now I have a copy which has never been outside my house and it means nothing to me.
Sal criss-crosses America with abandon, and sees the road in all its manifestations, from Los Angeles, the “one and only golden town” to the wildernesses of the East Coast, walking without money or food along the “mournful” Susquehanna. When he finally catches a ride, it is with a maniac who believes in controlled starvation and promises Sal “I’m going to live to be a hundred and fifty years old”. Those are the breaks of the road. I too know them, like the black humour of hanging on to a chain in a general compartment of a train for five hundred kilometres and discovering that the door you were going to enter is locked, or being stuck on the wrong side of a state border with protestors on both sides, burning buses.
The road reveals the traveller, tests him and uncovers his true nature. At the end of the day, Sal Paradise is an intellectual, a product of collegiate ivory towers; he is earnest and bookish, easily impressed and frequently lost in the depths of the real world. When he settles down as a cotton picker with a group of Mexican immigrants who take him in, he lasts a week. Then he hits the road again, and is glad to be free of the responsibility he had started to feel was weighing him down. But Sal is not as free as Dean, he can take trips once in a while, but the road is not his life. Similarly, it is not mine. In my defence, I know nobody brave enough for it to be his either. All of us journey with parachutes, with life jackets; safety is always a phone call or a withdrawal away.
As a novel, On The Road is a miserable failure, a higgledy-piggledy mass of scenes. It has no discernable or meaningful plot. The story flags towards the end. Long portions are unreadable and repetitive. Characters stick around unnecessary and unwanted in scenes where nothing happens. But that’s life, and On the Road was written into the notebooks of Kerouac as he lived the story. Dean Moriarty was the novelist Neal Cassady, Old Bull Lee was William S. Burroughs, and Carlo Marx, of course, was Allen Ginsberg, beat poet and proud member of the North American Man/Boy Love Association. Then, he returned home, taped sheets of tracing paper into a 120-foot long scroll and banged out the whole damn thing in three weeks.
Now, ten years after I first read it, I see the bones beneath the skin, the skills and structures that could have created the kind of excitement I had felt the first time I read it. I am older in other ways too. I have more than one bank account, a credit card, I’ve paid my taxes for the last year, I’m a little more willing to dress for the occasion. But still, there are times when I weary of all this dross, and I feel the call of the road, sense the ghost of Dean Moriarty beckoning. Then all of the elements align and I feel that the pearl may yet come to me.
Image above is from Ibureidpaul's photostream on Flickr.