Through the Cracks is a review series focusing on the ones that got away. These are timeless classics that everyone has read—everyone, that is, except the reviewer, who is finally getting around to reading a book which somehow slipped through the cracks and trying to see if it’s really all it’s cracked up to be.
Before I read Jack Kerouac’s “fictional” novel On the Road I knew it only by legend, and perhaps this is the reason it’s taken me up until now to read it. On the Road is one of those books with an elusive reputation. For years, I’ve been hearing every imaginable opinion of this book: everything from praises as high as “It’s an untouchable masterpiece,” to Truman Capote’s famous quip, “That’s not writing; it’s typing.” I didn’t know which camp I would fall into: the Kerouac devotees, or those who question On the Road’s status as a classic. Having now read On the Road, I have three strong opinions on it: I wouldn’t change a word of it, I wouldn’t remove it from the canon if I had the power to do so, and I would be a liar if I didn’t admit I almost gave up on it before I realized this.
Legend has it that Kerouac wrote On the Road on a three week benzedrine binge, but as with most legends, this is only a half-truth. I used to “know” the story well. Perhaps you “know” it too. It goes something like this: a speeded-up Jack Kerouac loaded his typewriter with a paper roll he created by taping 300+ sheets together. He didn’t edit. He just kept going and going, probably rarely sleeping (this is where the speed came in), and there you have it: the first ever stream of consciousness novel was born. What I didn’t know before reading the Ann Charters introduction which begins my ancient and beat-to-hell copy, was that Kerouac had already made an unsuccessful attempt to write On the Road as a conventionally constructed novel. He had written nearly a third of the would-be novel this way, before putting it aside because it felt, in his words, ‘false.’ It is also certainly worth noting that he re-typed On the Road several times, using the original paper roll he wrote in three weeks as a rough draft. He actually worked on this novel over four years after the three week writing binge that set it all in motion. Maybe those of you who studied On the Road in school are nodding your heads, thinking “yeah, yeah, I knew that,” but I wanted to mention this because it certainly is not common hearsay. And it’s important to discuss. It’s easy to think a book like this can be produced in three weeks like it’s a magic trick, and maybe it’s more fun to believe it was, but to perpetuate this myth is to belittle what Kerouac was trying to do. Kerouac was actually quite deliberate in how he created this book, and sculpted the characters. He wanted to make the book feel like chaos. He wanted it to sound like jazz and reek like gin, and contain joy and emptiness at the same time, just the way his characters experience life. He worked hard to make it seem so effortless. I’m not saying he thoroughly succeeds, but at times he succeeds, and the fact that he tried something like this before anyone else dared is why I will say without hesitation On the Road deserves its place as an American classic.
Like many others, I certainly had some difficulties encountering the unique prose-style. As I mentioned before, I almost gave up. This was because, for about 100 pages, it felt tedious to me. And this, I believe, had to do with the massive amount of detail Kerouac used to describe—well, to be honest—it felt like pretty much everything. Certainly, as a former student of writing, I am very familiar with the old adage, “don’t describe the gun unless it goes bang.” And this, more or less, is good advice. But in this novel, Kerouac describes, for example, passers-by that will never appear in the story again, in great detail. He seems to describe nearly every stretch of land he drives through, and every city, and every one-night-stand, and every car of every driver who pulls to the side when Sal Paradise sticks out his thumb…and this takes some getting used to. It can be frustrating, because I felt myself trying to latch onto something. I was thinking, “Is she going to be the love interest?” “Is this going to be the most important stretch of highway?” “Is this feeling of emptiness after a one-night-stand going to be a breakthrough in Sal’s character?” But, you simply can’t do this and make it through the book without cursing it forever. I felt I had to train myself to read On the Road. And the way it worked, at least for me, was when I stopped thinking and just enjoyed every moment for what it was, without needing anything to be deemed more or less important than anything else. I think there might be some sort of deep life lesson in this, but it’s way too hipsterish to talk about Buddhism nowadays, so I digress (damn hipsters).
Once I had trained myself, I was not only able to appreciate the story and the spirit of the novel, but also the beauty of the prose. Rich, romantic prose like this:
Tracy is a railroad town; brakemen eat surly meals in diners by the tracks. Trains howl away across the valley. The sun goes down long and red. All the magic names of the valley unrolled—Manteca, Madera, all the rest. Soon it got dusk, a grapy dusk, a purple dusk over tangerine groves and long melon fields; the sun the color of pressed grapes, slashed with burgundy red, the fields the color of love and Spanish mysteries.
So, there you have it: I finally read On the Road by Jack Kerouac, and I almost gave up on it at the 70 page mark. However, I pushed through and am now one of its desk-thumping defenders. I say it is indeed all it’s cracked up to be. But since most of you have read it already, what say you? **cracks knuckles and waits for the fight**