(Ed. Note: This review was originally published in September 2007, but has additional information pertaining to the LOST Library.)
Book: On the Road (1951)
Author: Jack Kerouac
Connection with ABC-TV’s LOST: The official LOST website links the book to episode 403. Ben’s alias, Dean Moriarty, is a character in the book. Dean Moriarty is said to be based on Neal Cassady, who was part of the Beat Generation movement (beatniks) in the 1950’s.
Review of the Book
The first time I heard of Jack Kerouac was one afternoon in college when my roommate decided to play a 10,000 Maniacs CD. Before I knew it, singer Natalie Merchant was crooning about a guy who was the iconic symbol of the Beat Generation and whose writings influenced an entire generation of readers. His most notable book, On the Road, came about during a twenty day spell of writing in 1951 where, fueled by coffee and a stream of consciousness writing style, he took eight sheets of tracing paper, taped them end to end, and typed his magnum opus on a 120-foot long scroll. For fifty years, readers have been able to read a significantly edited version of the work. But with the recent release of On The Road: The Original Scroll, they can read the work as Kerouac originally intended—with real names used instead of pseudonyms. The story provides an intriguing look into the problems of excess, of life lived in fifth gear with no cares and no inhibitions.
On The Road involves two main characters—Kerouac (as the narrator) who embarks on multiple trips across the United States, and Neil Cassady, a friend Kerouac catches up with on his journeys. Jack lives above a flower shop near New York City, writes in the daytime, and changes gears when the sun goes down. This means parties at friends’ homes, carousing, and a general freewheeling attitude regarding life. After an invitation by a friend to visit San Francisco, Kerouac seeks to get there by whatever method possible, whether by bus, railcar, or sticking a thumb out and hitchhiking. Along the way, he stops and takes time to enjoy what’s there, including jobs as a security guard north of San Francisco and a grape picker outside of Fresno. Of course, parties are the norm when and where they exist.
But the seemingly wild lifestyle Kerouac lives is nothing compared to Neil Cassady’s. Kerouac notes that “there was always a schedule in Neal’s life and it was growing more complicated every year” (p. 145). This was due to Neil’s incessant interests in women (he had been married three times, divorced twice, and was living with the second wife by the end of the book), drugs, and a need for speed. In one sequence, he and Kerouac take a Travel Bureau limousine and drive it from Denver to Chicago in twenty hours, effectively wrecking the car and scaring the passengers that went along with them (remember, this was in 1949). His conversations are long, rambling masses of words that don’t always make sense. Yet whether he had money or not, friends or not, Cassady was determined to make the most of the freedom he supposedly enjoyed.
Along with various sidekicks such as Allen Ginsberg, Justin W. Brierley, and Al Hinkle (who married a woman solely for her money, ditching her in Tucson AZ a few days later), the two drive down the road of life, choosing to deal with issues only when they materialize in front of them. As a result, they believe that the road one travels doesn’t matter, as evidenced by a comment from Cassady: “What’s your road, man?—holyboy road, madman road, rainbow road, guppy road, any road. It’s an anywhere road for anybody anyhow” (p. 352).
But this cannot be farther from the truth. The road a person travels does make a major difference in how they view the world around them and those they come in contact with. Thus, it’s wise to choose the correct road as soon as possible so as to maximize its effectiveness. The writer of Proverbs astutely noted that the road leading to God and his wisdom is a wise choice because it provides discretion and understanding in all situations (see Proverbs 2:1-11). It also provides true freedom—one tempered with a measure of responsibility desperately lacking from Kerouac, Cassady, and the other members of the Beat Generation. As the Apostle Paul put it, “You . . . were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love” (Galatians 5:13 [NIV]). Freewheeling lifestyles are not truly free, whether alone or among a group—they simply provide a false freedom that becomes more and more difficult to attain.
At the end of the book, Kerouac and Cassady drive across the US border into Mexico and suddenly believe they have “finally found the magic land at the end of the road” (p. 377). But alas, it is all just a dream. If anything, Kerouac’s disturbing, maddening, and fascinating account reveals that the road of life is best traveled with God—allowing him to help make the journey and final destination the best it can be.