Tuesday, February 08, 2005

On the Road by Jack Kerouac

A Book Review by Zinta Aistars

# Hardcover: 307 pages
# Publisher: Viking Books, 1997
# ISBN: 0670874787
# $24.95

It's been many years since I first read On the Road, but I wanted to reread it, refresh my memory, as Kerouac's name still comes up so often in the literary circles I respect and enjoy. That he left an impact with his work is undeniable. Any time that a writer breaks new ground in form or style, there is inevitably an uproar, as there was, still is, with Kerouac. He is either worthless ... or his work is a gift from the Literary God, a masterpiece like no other.

As I reread this book, and yes, as I enjoyed it, my final sense of it is this: Kerouac's work breaks literary ground. It is not worthless. Neither is it a 'masterpiece like no other'. But it is an important work, and Kerouac is an important writer. He is the voice of a time period, and he is an original one. His writing style reflects that time and that generation of 'beatniks' as no one else had before him and no one else has since, if only in imitation of Kerouac. The book should be read as such, appreciated even for its lack of the usual grammatical constraints or usual strict plotlines. These are not heroes. These are just men who travel across America in some dazed quest for something, perhaps nameless, perhaps unknown even to them. If they come off the written page as chauvinists, as druggies, or as aimless bums, well, yeah, they are. This is their story.

However 'free' Kerouac's style might seem at times (likening it to a stream of consciousness would not be unfair), it often shows literary brilliance. One of very many examples:

'We all jumped to the music and agreed. The purity of the road. The white line in the middle of the highway unrolled and hugged our left front tire as if glued to our groove. Dean hunched his muscular neck, T-shirted in the winter night, and blasted the car along. He insisted I drive through Baltimore for traffic practice; that was all right; except he and Marylou insisted on steering while they kissed and fooled around. It was crazy; the radio was on full blast. Dean beat drums on the dashboard till a great sag developed in it; I did too. The poor Hudson, the slow boat to China, was receiving her beating.'

Kerouac evokes what these characters (and their real life models, including himself) are in his style of wandering ease. His words have fullness and color. His expressions are rich and alive. There is purpose to his lack of purpose. There is reason to his madness. There is great value in any art form to be a groundbreaker, a trailblazer. And Kerouac is that.

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