On the Road

Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, from 1955, is the standard text of the so-called Beat generation, as it includes all that the Beats valued: jazz, freedom, sex, and drugs. Exchange “rock n’ roll” for “jazz” and you have the perfect recipe for proto-hippies — so the novel’s influence is easy to see. On the Road follows its narrator, Sal Paradise, on several impromptu road trips across the country, most of which are inspired by or done in quest of beatnik cowboy, Dean Moriarty, who seems to embody “the ragged and ecstatic joy of pure being.” His crazy, no-holds-barred approach to living inspires Sal, even though it frequently wounds him and their group of friends. Sal and Dean spend a lot of time raving about the concept of “IT,” and the book functions, in some ways, as their quest after this noble ideal. Just what is “IT?” Well, in the words of Dean Moriarty, “now you’re asking me impon-de-rables…” but the closest the characters seem to come to experiencing “IT” is in jazz clubs. Speaking of experiencing “IT” in the music of an alto sax player, Moriarty enthuses: 

All of a sudden somewhere in the middle of a chorus he gets it — everybody looks up and knows; they listen; he picks it up and carries. Time stops. He’s filling empty space with the substance of our lives, confessions of his bellybottom strain, remembrance of ideas…with such infinite feeling soul-exploratory for the tune of the moment that everybody knows it’s not the tune that counts but IT —

As a Christian, it’s hard not to see the protagonists’ quest for “IT” as a quest for spiritual fulfillment. That they come closest to finding it in the beauty of complex free jazz is telling for me, as it speaks to the pull of the human soul toward beauty, leading to that which is truly Beautiful. However, for all that is beautiful, joyous and exuberant in this classic novel, it is important to note that On the Road is pervasively lonely. Love is almost never kept and goodbyes are prevalent; such is life on the road, and the narrator, Sal, constantly speaks of his lonesomeness. Sal is also a veteran of World War 2 —  though this is not something that the novel plays up — and each GI check that Sal receives is a reminder that, to the characters in On the Road, life is undeniably altered, post-war. This post-war setting may account for the novel’s simultaneous joy and darkness: joy, because life is recognized as short and precious in light of war, and darkness, because ordinary life will never be dangerous or fulfilling enough after the war, and the spectre of loss and death will continue to haunt Sal no matter how many road trips he takes. The book’s tension between joy and loneliness is the tension of every human being living in a world that is both already redeemed, yet caught in the in-between place where life does not live up to what we feel, in our hearts, that it should be. Like Sal, we’re all just on the road, looking for “IT,” maybe enjoying some good music on the journey. But I didn’t need to tell you that — Kerouac already told us that “the road is life.”

(this has been another entry in our series of book discussions for National Book Month)

(More articles at www.ThinkingThroughChristianity.com)