To describe 2020 as difficult would be a gross understatement. It’s not just the constant struggle of having to unlearn and learn how to live our lives. The year has been plagued with infinite battles fought in our heads and hearts. A stifling stagnancy contaminates dreams and realities. Such tumultuous times call for a gust of crisp, fresh air. For me, it came as Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. That unforgettable piece of Beat Generation literature that redefined rebellion, inspired generations of youthful madness, changed Bob Dylan’s life and birthed a sparkling, anti-mainstream régime by stitching together ‘deviant’ subcultures.
Before delving into On the Road, it would be helpful to clarify that no Beat poet, writer or artist was perfect. Not by any stretch of the imagination. Stark-raving insanity was the alternative they concocted to challenge the American humdrum and this philosophy had hysterical manifestations. However, this isn’t about their controversial lifestyle. Everyone knows of the psychotic episodes, multiple addictions, use of chemical stimulants, rampant affairs, promiscuity and irreverence. Frequently and unfortunately, this becomes the start and the end of most conversations on this period. My current concern isn’t discussing Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs’ way of life. Nor is it sensationalising their excesses. It’s only to initiate a dialogue on a particular book that was the literary milestone of the 1950s and why it needs your attention in 2020 more than ever.
On the Road is the logical culmination of Jack Kerouac’s love for travelling. The story follows Sal Paradise (the author’s alter ego) and his journey across America through which he attempts to break through life’s inertia, discover the meaning of manana (an indefinite future) and experience love, freedom and self-assertion. With Sal, we travel to Chicago, Iowa, Denver, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Sabinal, New York and countless, nameless towns that dot the landscape. We are thrown into the arms of bustling cities, impoverished mining settlements, lively carnivals, snow-capped mountains, apple pie and ice-cream trucks and fields the colour of love and Spanish mysteries. It’s like the textual rendition of an exhilarating and intricate dream.
So, why do I speak highly of the book as an antidote to the emotional turbulence of 2020? Because seldom will you come across an experience that is soothing, immersive, contemplative and breathtaking at the same time. On the Road is about flawed individuals who are clawing to make ends meet, failing miserably, not being able to decide for themselves or decipher who they are. There is no privilege. The existential crisis is real. The fear of missing out on the best years is real. At a hard-hitting juncture, a depressed Sal is alone in Los Angeles. Surrounded by glitz and glamour, he uses his only dollar to buy a loaf of bread and laments spending his last night in the crazy gold-coast city making sandwiches in a parking lot. As a 23-year-old always distressed about not having achieved or experienced enough, this little paragraph deeply resonated with me, as it will with the countless others who grapple with the anxiety of their lives passing them by. We’ve all suffered moments where like Sal, we thought, “I had nothing to offer anybody, apart from my own confusion.”
Yet (and thankfully), On the Road is brimming with promise. Kerouac acknowledges the bubbling restlessness, disillusionment, and frustration. He shows you the way, describing the path through language that is unimaginably decadent. So, don’t be surprised when you find pages after pages talking about one night or a cobbled alley. But, here’s the catch. The writing is rich, picturesque, and easy-going. You’ll never realise the breakneck speed at which you’re living Sal’s life. Nor can you enumerate the sheer number of towns and freeways you’ve traversed with him. Kerouac’s writing is both transportive and transformative. The dense imagery is bewitching, flowing like intoxicated thoughts. The result is mesmerising, flashing before your eyes like postcards. Imagine a red rose floating down the Hudson River, burning Roman candles, cherry blossom mornings of springtime in the Rockies and purple dusks over tangerine groves.
On the Road is equally harrowing. A feeling of breathlessness pervades the aesthetic. While reading long, winding paragraphs about waking up alone in a hotel room, it isn’t uncommon to experience dissociation and sadness. When Sal remarks, “Things are so hard to figure out when you live from day to day in this feverish, silly world”, you understand his dejection and naiveté. We all have a Sal within us- immature, compassionate, and clumsy.
The book’s merit is the power it vests in the human capacity to sustain. No matter how cold it is or how penniless you are, there’s always a mason jar of hope. Sal has been heartbroken, confused, and stranded. His intense sorrow, set against the backdrop of rain in the mountains and lonely highways, is nerve-wracking. It reminds us of our hidden insecurities and the dread of being lost. But the despondency is never absolute. Sooner or later, a jalopy comes along and Sal is on the go again, ready for his next destination. There will be a kind soul who’ll share a smoke or pay for coffee. Or a good night’s sleep in a comfortable inn. To put it simply, Sal survives. His actions aren’t heroic. There are dark bends and slippery slopes and like anybody else, he improvises and finds joy in the nooks and crannies of life. Nonetheless, the adventures don’t cease. It assures his readers that they too will make it out of any mess.
Those familiar with On the Road can criticise my article on many accounts. I’ll list them. First, I haven’t commented on the Beat values, their post-war context or impact on literary traditions. Second, I haven’t detailed other characters and their bearing on Sal’s life. Finally, the most searing disapproval is, “Where the hell is Dean Moriarty?” Dean Moriarty, the speed-loving, selfish, indulgent and reckless man whose arrival set the entire book in motion. While I accept the shortcomings, my aim was to primarily talk about the philosophies in the book and how they can help overcome the 2020 blues. On the Road provides what has been hugely absent in our lives in the past months- a sense of movement. It does so in the most relatable manner possible, by telling us about clueless people who have their coming-of-age journeys. It takes time, tears, laughter and belief. The book is messy, beautiful, and too much about everything to be about anything in particular. Just like life.