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Kerouac's On the Road

Part Three : The Continuation of Old Themes:

::Thursday , February 28, 2002::

:: :

Part III marks a change in the pace and philosophy of the novel as Sal decides Middle America is where he will find what he has been seeking. He goes to Denver to settle down and become a “patriarch” which I find a very stunning departure from his early ramblings. Becoming a patriarch is a new one.

The Quest

But no one is in Denver. “I was lonesome. Nobody was there.”

Soon he is on his way back to San Francisco, knocking on Dean’s door at 2 a.m. “You’ve finally come to me,” Dean says. Dean is with Camille this time and Sal hears her sobbing upstairs. He thinks of his “arrival somewhat like the coming of the strange most evil angel.” Camille knows the two men together will push Dean into madness again.

After a few days together, Sal realizes it was up to him to save Dean. “The devil himself had never fallen farther.” “Let’s walk to New York,” Dean says, sounding like the old Dean only crazier. Sal suggests after New York they could go to Italy. Sal also realizes Dean is very needy now–maybe always has been, but up to now he was more fun than baggage. “I’d never committed myself before with regard to his burdensome existence.” Now he has, but he will not abandon his friend. “It was probably the pivotal point of our friendship when he realized I had actually spent some hours thinking about him and his troubles.” Sal finishes with the revelation that they are ”two broken-down heroes of the Western night.” Even so they will stick together and will “be buddies” till they die.

A word here about a unique form of travel these two have used. Apparently in the 50s it was possible to drop by certain travel bureaus in the big cities of America and pick up share-the-gas-cars, driving to certain destinations with other travelers. Sal and Dean have used this form of transportation frequently.

On the road again Dean reveals m ore about his alcoholic dad whom he has searched for off and on throughout the story. He talks of making and selling flyswatters in Nebraska, and watching, huddled and crying in the background, as his dad drinks up the profits in a five day binge.

Sal and Dean become so excited retelling their life stories that the car rocks. “Dean and I both swayed to the rhythm and the IT of our final excited joy in talking and living to the blank tranced end of all innumerable riotous angelic particulars that had been lurking in our souls all our life…we know what IT is and we know TIME and we know that everything is really FINE.” I wish I knew more about IT, but I sense a breakthrough as Dean continues, watching the driver of the car

Now you just dig them in front. They have worries they’re counting the miles, they’re thinking about where to sleep tonight, how much money for gas, the weather, how they’ll get there–and all the time they’ll get there anyway, you see. But they need to worry an d betray time with urgencies false and otherwise, purely anxious and whiny, their souls really won’t be at peace unless they can latch on to an established and proven worry and having once found it they assume facial expressions to fit and go with it , which is, you see, unhappiness, and all the time it all flies by them and they know it and that too worries them no end.

The road is life, Sal says.

In Denver Sal and Dean argue in the men’s room over growing old and Dean leaves his dinner, steps outside and cries, he says. Sal doesn’t believe him. “You don’t die enough to cry.”

Everyone of these things I said was a knife at myself.

Everything I had ever secretly held against my brother (Kerouac’s

brother died at the age of nine.) was coming out: how ugly I was and

what filth I was discovering in the depths of my own impure

psychologies…You know I don’t have close relationships

with anybody any more–I don’t know what to do with these

things. I hold things in my hand like pieces of crap and don’t

know where to put it down.

The holy con-man began to eat. “Its not my fault! It’s not my fault!…Nothing in this lousy world is my fault, don’t you see that I don’t want it to be and it can’t be and it wont’ be.

Once again the boys link up with strangers, this time a family from Oklahoma (Okies), party, act crazy, chase women, and for a few days destroy the peace; then they must move on. In Denver Dean connects with a cousin who only wants Dean to sign papers, stating he and his dad will stay away from the family. Dean is truly alone, attached only to Sal.

At the travel bureau they pick up a 1947 Cadillac to get them to Chicago along with other passengers. Dean’s crazy driving scares everyone again and the boys in the back seat ask Sal “Is he your brother?” Sal replies, “He’s mad…and yes, he’s my brother.” The two men do seem to have become two parts of a whole they find equally untenable.

Dean relates more about his life, how he met Marylou, and his search for his dad.

As they approach Chicago, Sal recounts they had driven from Denver to Chicago with a side trip in east Colorado, 1180 miles in 17 hours, an average of 70 miles an hour. Remember this is 1949.

From Chicago to Detroit they take a bus.

In Detroit, ragged and dirty, Dean and Sal spend the night in an all night theatre, watching, listening to, dreaming of a Western that replays six times, “the strange Gray Myth of the West” an appropriate movie for these two who once thought IT was located in the West. Could we substitute Gatsby’s Green light here? Sal has one terrific nightmare in which he sees himself wrapped around a toilet bowl asleep. During the night hundreds of seamen (the time of his dream is during W.W.II come “cast their sentient debouchements” on him till he is covered. His Conclusion? “What difference does it make after all?–anonymity in the world of men is better than fame in heaven, for what’s heaven? what’s earth? All in the min -d.”

In New York, Dean and Sal move in with Sal’s aunt who has had enough of Dean. She says “Dean can stay here a few days and after that he has to get out, do you understand me?” I should have kept track of how many women want to keep these two separated for everyone’s good. It reminds me of keeping two kids apart on the playground or in the classroom. Sal realizes the trip is over.

Incredibly five days later at a party Sal introduces Dean to Inez, and they begin the long distance calls to Camille, asking for a divorce so he can mar +ry her. The decision is made to go to Mexico to obtain the divorce because it will be quicker. A few months later Camille gives birth to a second baby, and a few months later Inez has a baby. At the end of Part III Sal tallies up. Dean has fathered four children and has “not a cent.” Needless to say, the trip to Italy is off.

Sex

Through sexual innuendo in an encounter with a homosexual, Dean becomes wise. The implication is in order to raise some money Dean confronts a homosexual (fag) in the story. (This has always been a derogatory word to me, and I believe it was in the 50s if I remember correctly–I don’t use the word myself. The only time Dean and Sal appear judgmental at all is when they meet a homosexual. Biographers mention Neal Cassady’s affair with Allen Ginsberg in between his hetero sexual affairs, and some hint at Kerouac’s homosexual encounters.) The homosexual backs off nervously apparently fearful Dean will now steal from him, but Dean comments as he has earlier in the story, “You see, man, it’s better not to bother. Offer them what they secretly want and they of course immediately become panic-stricken.” A theory I would have to test further, but it sounds like it would be true more often than not.

Love

While Dean has been living with Camille, he has probably driven her mad. She cries and throws tantrums when Sal shows up at their door. Add this fact also. Dean has gone crazy over Marylou, following her around San Francisco watching her with other men.

Dean returns to Marylou I suppose because he still loves her, but he also wants “absolute proof that she was a whore.” Wow–Love is a dual, isn’t it, as Sal has already determined.

Under the influence of “bad tea, Dean runs to Marylou to share the stuff with her. He also takes a gun “I knew I loved her so much I wanted to kill her.” Later he gives her the gun and tells her to kill him. Their love has nearly destroyed them, and Marylou finally marries a used car dealer . But Dean carries a memento of his final days with Marylou, a badly damaged thumb he has broken when he struck her. I hate it when English majors make too much of the events in stories, turning them into heavy symbols, but the broken thumb which, poorly treated develops osteomyelitis, becomes a visible symbol of how Dean has changed. Sal says

“That thumb became the symbol of Dean’s final development.

He no longer cared about anything (as before) but now he also cared v

about everything in principle; that is to say, it was all the same to him

and he belonged to the world and there was nothing he could do about it.

Dean, I think, finally must pay a consequence for his actions and suffers from a wound just like anyone else.

Dean returns to Camille and goes to work at Firestone, but Camille throws both of the men out.

This is the moment Sal comes to realize that "all these women were spending months of loneliness and womanliness together, chatting about the madness of the men.” Hmmm, is Sal beginning to think about the feelings of others? I wonder.

Sal finds the woman he loves agai n after Dean has driven the car into the ditch on his way to Chicago. She is a young girl, standing in a field , watching her father pull the car out with a tractor. Sal calls her is “prairie angel “I’d give up everything and throw myself on her mercy and if she didn’t want me I’d just as simply go and throw myself off the edge of the world.” He doesn’t even speak to her.

East versus West

Interest in getting to either coast seems blunted now. The cross country trips seem to be more duty than desire. Sal even tries Denver, thinking that is the place for him. Chicago and Detroit are also major stops on the road. Middle America exerts its influence.

Youthful Exuberance

Remember it’s 1949. Sal is 27; Dean is about four years younger. Yet youth is over for these two. They are sti ll irresponsible in the eyes of the women they meet and love, but they are changing; Sal wants to settle down now; Dean has even married and found a job.

The Beat Generation

The drug use continues. Dean gets hold of some “bad green –green, uncured marijuana” and smokes too much of it. The first day he lies rigid, not moving or speaking, looking straight up. He hears buzzing, sees technicolor visions and feels wonderful.

EVERYTHING I’d ever done or known or read or

heard of or conjecture came back to me and rearranged

itself in my mind in a brand-new logical way and because

I could think of nothing else in the interior concerns of holding

and catering to the amazement and gratitude I felt, I kept saying,

‘yes, yes, yes.’” “I had understood everything by then, my

whole life was decided.”

It’s after the third day of this that he takes the gun to Marylou’s and threatens to kill her, then asks her to kill him. I don’t know about you, but I will stick to martinis.

Jazz continues to play in the background as Dean and Sal listen to “a wild tenorman bawling horn.” “Blow, man blow!” Dean cries. Jazz club patrons drink wine-spodiodi, and now I know the drink is a layer of port wine, whiskey, and port wine. Sorry I missed that. Everyone rocks and roars. They actually hear George Shearing play in Chicago.

Disillusionment

Sal has never been judgmental. He would have benefited from good judgment. In Denver he accepts and longs to be a N egro, “feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night.” Or maybe a “Denver Mexican or even a poor overworked Jap, anything but what I was so drearily, a ‘white man’ disillusioned. All my life I’d had white ambitions; that was why I’d abandoned a good woman like Terry in the San Joaquin Valley.”

Sal walks the streets of Denver, wishing he could find Dean and Maylou. He watches a softball game and wishes he had been able to play with such abandon. He had felt no joy when he played sports in school. Now it was too late. The people he hears, talking on the porches, know nothing of “white sorrows.”

But Dean is becoming “the Idiot, the Imbecile, the Saint of the lot,” int eresting, conflicting descriptions as he and Sal spend their last two days in San Francisco. He is now called the “HOLY GOOF,” and I am reminded of the fool in Shakespeare’s plays although I never thought of Shakespeare’s fools as being so self-destructive. When Dean is silent at a party, he frightens everyone, but Sal describes him as BEAT the root, the soul of Beatific….we’d made up our minds about time …Bitterness, recriminations, advice, morality, sadness–everything was behind him, and ahead of him was the ragged and ecstatic joy of pure being.” Since I’m not quite there yet, I’m not certain I fully understand how to get from one existence to the next.

Galatea wishes him dead. Sal counters “Very well then,…but now he’s alone and I’’ll bet you want to know what he does next and that’s because he’s got the secret that we’re all busting to find and it’s splitting his head wide open and if he goes mad don’t worry, it won’t be our fault but the fault of God.” Another friend who thinks he knows Dean better than anybody, says “All Dean was, was just a very interesting and even amusing con-man.”

But just about the time one thinks it ‘s time to commit Dean, he continues with his soul–which I think is wrapped up in a fast car, a coast to reach, and a woman at the end of the road–calmly and sanely as though nothing had happened.”

Enlightenment from direct, intuitive insights

Zen Buddhism?

On his way to San Francisco one more time he sees “God in the sky in the form of huge gold sun burning clouds above the d xesert that seemed to point a finger at me and say, ‘Pass here and go on, you’re on the road to heaven.” Other references to the influence of Buddhism are noted in previous sections.

Race

I have to add something here. Does it bother anyone else that white folks see minorities, especially Blacks, as somehow happier than we are because they don’t have as many problems as we have? That’s how Sal views other races. That’s exactly how lots of Southerners saw Blacks during the Jim Crow days. As though working for low wages, living in poor housing with little or no medical care, lack of education and general opportunity to succeed didn’t produce problems. The kindest comment I can make about Sal’s wishing to be something other than white is how naive and how ego-centric.

Language

If anything I think the sentences and paragraphs are longer in Part III, but I also think the expr ession is getting sharper; Kerouac’s voice is stronger.

Conclusion to Part III

Part III ends with the Dean and Sal pledging their everlasting friendship primarily because they really only have each other. Dean has fathered children whom he does not support and seldom sees. About to travel to Mexico to get a divorce from Camille, Dean is now living with Inez, but knowing him, one wonders how long that will last.

Both men have nearly broken through to “the path,” eschewing daily worries about clean clothes, gas money, food, but I still don’t think the masters would approve of the way these guys live, do you?

Diane McCormick

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Kerouac's On the Road

PageCount’s Tribute

On Monday’s blog entry Pagecount writes an eloquent tribute to Kerouac’s novels and provides a number of excellent sources on the web, some of which I will probably borrow as links at the end of the series. Obviously he started reading the novels a long time ago, and thus they meant more to him than they did to me. it’s a neat read.

I took On the Road to my surgeon’s office today since doctor’s waiting rooms are a great place to catch up on your reading. Doc, hardly a counter-culture kind of guy, pointed out that he read several of the novels while in college.

In fact, there seems to a whole generation of people who have grown up with Kerouac’s books. If I’d been more aware of that, I would have hesitated to take on this book. I’m still hoping to get short articles from people who can offer a different perspective.

:: On the Road : Part Three ::

For me, the novel finally begins to pick up in Part III. Although there may be a little less action, we finally begin to discover some of the reasons why these people act the way they do. Sal explains it in sociological terms, but it could be explained equally well in psychological terms:

At lilac evening I walked with every muscle aching among the lights of 27th and Welton in the Denver colored section, wishing I were a Negro, feeling that the best the white world had offered was not enough ecstasy for me, not enough life, joy, kicks, darkness, music, not enough night. I stopped at a little shack where a man sold hot red chili in paper containers; I bought some and ate it, strolling in the dark mysterious streets. I wished I were a Denver Mexican, or even a poor overworked Jap, anything but what I was so drearily, a "white man" disillusioned. All my life I’d had white ambitions; that was why I’d abandoned a good woman like Terry in the San Joaquin Valley.

No doubt jazz and the blues had more emotional power than white music in the same period, which of course explains why the whites ripped it off so voraciously. I seldom attend church, but I always said that if I were going to go that I wanted to go to a black church where they sang gospel music because at least they sound happy about where they’re going. That said, it seems extremely naive to blame Sal’s depression on “white ambitions.” Black musicians have a long history of drug addiction, and there’s certainly more than enough despair in any black or Mexican community. He’s lying to himself to avoid the real problems that lie behind his depression.

When we first meet Dean in this section, he seems to have recovered from his depression. He greets Sal by telling him:

And yet-and yet, I’ve never felt better and finer and happier with the world and to see little lovely children playing in the sun and I am so glad to see you, my fine gone wonderful Sal, and I know, I know everything will be all right. You’ll see her tomorrow, my terrific darling beautiful daughter can now stand alone for thirty seconds at a time, she weighs twenty-two pounds, is twenty-nine inches long.

Anyone who’s read the first half of the book knows that Dean is blowing smoke, and he’ll soon become his old manic self. Sure enough, a few pages later we learn the real truth:

That thumb became the symbol of Dean’s final development. He no longer cared about anything (as before) but now he also cared about everything in principle; that is to say, it was all the same to him and he belonged to the world and there was nothing he could do about it.

In Part Three we also begin to understand the connection between these two. There’s even a brief moment when Sal and Dean really seem to care about each other and aren’t just using each other to liven up their lives:

"Why yass," said Dean, and then realized I was serious and looked at me out of the corner of his eye for the first time, for I’d never committed myself before with regard to his burdensome existence, and that look was the look of a man weighing his chances at the last moment before the bet. There were triumph and insolence in his eyes, a devilish look, and he never took his eyes off mine for a long time. I looked back at him and blushed.

Is it odd, though, that even at the very moment he makes his first commitment to Dean, that Sal looks for signs of betrayal? We know that Dean is incapable of any real commitment to anyone, but is Sal capable of commitment either?

I’m still not sure whether Sal’s pronouncement of Dean as the Holy Goof is a put down, a compliment, or both, but I’m thinking in the long run it would have to hang around your neck like an albatross:

I suddenly realized that Dean, by virtue of his enormous series of sins, was becoming the Idiot, the Imbecile, the Saint of the lot.

That’s what Dean was, the HOLY GOOF.

Still, in a few minutes everyone in the group is envying Sal’s relationship to Dean:

He was ‘BEAT-the root, the soul of Beatific. What was he knowing? He tried all in his power to tell me what he was knowing, and they envied that about me, my position at his side, defending him and drinking him in as they once tried to do. Then they looked at me. What was I, a stranger, doing on the West Coast this fair night? I recoiled from the thought.

No matter how much Sal sees Dean as an idiot, Sal seems to get more from the relationship than Dean does. Sal, lacking self-motivation, “drinks in” Dean’s energy.

In a high point in the novel, Sal and Dean actually seem to be feeding off each other on their trip back east in the Cadillac:

"For God’s sakes, you’re rocking the boat back there." Actually we were; the car was swaying as Dean and I both swayed to the rhythm and the IT of our final excited joy in talking and living to the blank tranced end of all innumerable riotous angelic particulars that had been lurking in our souls all our lives.

"Oh, man! man! man!" moaned Dean. "And it’s not even the beginning of it-and now here we are at last going east together, we’ve never gone east together, Sal, think of it, we’ll dig Denver together and see what everybody’s doing although that matters little to us, the point being that we know what IT is and we know TIME and we know that everything is really FINE." Then he whispered, clutching my sleeve, sweating, "Now you just dig them in front. They have worries, they’re counting the miles, they’re thinking about where to sleep tonight, how much money for gas, the weather, how they’ll get there-and all the time they’ll get there anyway, you see. But they need to worry and betray time with urgencies false and otherwise, purely anxious and whiny, their souls really won’t be at peace unless they can latch on to an established and proven worry and having once found it they assume facial expressions to fit and go with it, which is, you see, unhappiness, and all the time it all flies by them and they know it and that too worries them no end.

At this moment, at this very moment, they seem to be living out the dream of the road consumed by the IT “of all innumerable riotous angelic particulars” instead of being stuck in the “established and proven” worries that haunt those who are not Beat. It is one of the few zen-like moments I found in the novel.

Soon the moment is gone, and they are at each other again. This time, though, it’s Sal who ends up apologizing to Dean for attacking him:

"Ah, man, Dean, I’m sorry, I never acted this way before wit you. Well, now you know me. You know I don’t have close relationships with anybody any more-I don’t know what to do wit these things. I hold things in my hand like pieces of crap and don’ know where to put it down. Let’s forget it." The holy con-man began to eat. "It’s not my fault! It’s not my fault!" I told him "Nothing in this lousy world is my fault, don’t you see that? don’t want it to be and if can’t be and it won’t be."

This is another moment of truth where we discover for the first time Sal admits that he doesn’t feel close to anyone, but worst, though he refuses to take responsibility, he feels responsible for the shape of the “lousy world.”

As a modern American male, I find it difficult not to identify with Sal and Dean’s identification with the car and the open road.

… I could feel the road some twenty inches beneath me, unfurling and flying and hissing at incredible speeds across the groaning continent with that mad Ahab at the wheel. When I closed my eyes all I could see was the road unwinding into me. When I opened them I saw flashing shadows of trees vibrating on the floor of the car. There was no escaping it. I resigned myself to all.

When I finally graduated from college and escaped that self-imposed poverty, I rewarded myself by buying a brand new flashy yellow ’65 Mustang. Driving to my first Army post in my brand new ‘tang, I felt everything was right with the world. Later, when life on post became suffocating, we would go out and see if we could outrace boredom. At 100 mph she literally started to lift off the ground and leave all cares behind. On my last trip home before leaving for Vietnam, with nothing left to lose, we must have surely set the land-speed record from Camp Irwin to Vancouver, U.S.A But, God, what a rite of passage I went through years later when I had to trade that car in for a Dodge Dart that could carry the crib, high chair, etc., etc. (Don’t worry, Dawn, I don’t hold it against you any more.)

On the bus ride that ends the chapter, we almost, almost, can see the point Dean made about IT when Sal:

… took up a conversation with a gorgeous country girl wearing a low-cut cotton blouse that displayed the beautiful sun-tan on her breast tops. She was dull. She spoke of evenings in the country making popcorn on the porch. Once this would have gladdened my heart but because her heart was not glad when she said it I knew there was nothing in it but the idea of what one should do. "And what else do you do for fun?" I tried to bring up boy friends and sex. Her great dark eyes surveyed me with emptiness and a kind of chagrin that reached back generations and generations in her blood from not having done what was crying to be done-whatever it was, and everybody knows what it was. "What do you want out of life?" I wanted to take her and wring it out of her. She didn’t have the slightest idea what she wanted.

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Kerouac's On the Road

On the Road : Part Two

At the beginning of Part Two, Sal implies he’s gotten his life back together after his first trip to the West Coast. But as soon as Dean shows up, he’s ready to throw all this away even though Sal realizes Dean has had no particular motive for coming to see him:

It was a completely meaningless set of circumstances that made Dean come, and similarly I went off with him for no reason. In New York I had been attending school and romancing around with a girl called Lucille, a beautiful Italian honey-haired darling that I actually wanted to marry. All these years I was looking for the woman I wanted to marry.

Despite this, Sal forgoes his plans and is off with Dean. Dean obviously means a lot more to Sal than is readily apparent. Sal is disconnected from life; he says he’s “looking for a wife,” though it’s apparent he doesn’t really want one. He looks to others who are more enthusiastic about life than he is because he is unable to find real joy in his own life.

Although the women in Sal’s life can see through Dean, Sal obviously can’t. When he takes Lucille to a party where Dean and Marylou are partying, Lucille says:

"I don’t like you when you’re with them."
“Ah, it’s all right, it’s just kicks. We only live once. We’re having a good’time."
"No, it’s sad and I don’t like it."

It is sad, and I’m even beginning to not like it. Even his aunt, his surrogate mother, knows that Dean and Sal have something to be ashamed of:

My aunt a respectable woman hung-up in this sad world, and well she knew the world. … She knew Dean had something to be ashamed of, and me too, by virtue of my being with Dean, and Dean and I accepted this sadly.

Instead, of being ashamed of Dean, though, Sal sees something holy and mystical about Dean.

There was nothing clear about the things he said, but what he meant to say was somehow made pure and clear. He used the word "pure" a great deal. I had never dreamed Dean would become a mystic. These were the first days of his mysticism, which would lead to the strange, ragged W. C. Fields saintliness of his later days.

Unable to find a spiritual foundation of his own, Sal seems to be looking for a prophet, looking for someone who can give meaning to his own meaningless life.

When he does realize there is something wrong with Dean, he makes excuses for his behavior. Dean’s five years in jail are an excuse for Dean’s behavior, just as Remi’s stealing had been justified by his mistreatment as a child:

Only a guy who’s spent five years in jail can go to such maniacal helpless extremes; beseeching at the portals of the soft source, mad with a completely physical realization of the origins of life-bliss; blindly seeking to return the way he came. … Prison is where you promise yourself the right to live. Dean had never seen his mother’s face. Every new girl, every new wife, every new child was an addition to his bleak impoverishment. … Dean had every right to die the sweet deaths of complete love of his Marylou. I didn’t want to interfere, I just wanted to follow.

The hardest thing to account for in this novel is Sal’s lack of self image. Although we understand the sources of Remi’s and Dean’s insecurity, and thus the reasons for their behavior, we never really understand why Sal is driven to follow them. Why is he obsessed with their love making, and why does he allow himself to be used to meet their ends? Is it simply that he is incapable of such desire? Is he incapable of living within the boundaries that society establishes yet unable to break them himself?

Again, we get the sense that Sal knew this journey would end up just like the first one. He says they are “leaving confusion and nonsense behind,” but he could see “that it was all going to be one big saga of the mist.” Now, if mist isn’t a symbol of confusion, I don’t know what would be:

It was drizzling and mysterious at the beginning of our journey. I could see that it was all going to be one big saga of the mist. "Whooee!" yelled Dean. "Here we go!" And he hunched over the wheel and gunned her; he was back in his element, everybody could see that. We were all delighted, we all realized we were leaving confusion and nonsense behind and performing our one and noble function of the time, move. And we moved!

Being on the move is certainly the driving force of this novel, and thank God for some movement, for movement is all we seem to have going here so far.

Perhaps the most interesting, and yet saddest, person they meet on their travels is Old Bull Lee. He’s a true character, perhaps the last true American, or the first true Libertarian:

Bull had a sentimental streak about the old days in America, especially 1910, when you could get morphine in a drugstore without prescription and Chinese smoked opium in their evening windows and the country was wild and brawling and free, with abundance and any kind of freedom for everyone. His chief hate was Washington bureaucracy; second to that, liberals; then cops.

He spent all his time talking and teaching others. Jane sat at his feet; so did I; so did Dean; and so had Carlo Marx. We’d all learned from him. He was a gray, nondescript-looking fellow you wouldn’t notice on the street, unless you looked closer and saw his mad, bony skull with its strange youthfulness-a Kansas minister with exotic, phenomenal fires and mysteries.

It’s almost as if Old Bull Lee is the prophet of this new religion, the Original Beat. If so, Sal should obviously have been forewarned of the dangers of this new religion because Bull “took so much junk into his system, he could only weather the greater proportion of his day in that chair with the lamp burning at noon, but in the morning he was magnificent.” I guess half a life is better than none.

Just in case you’re starting to identify with these people of-the-people and for-the-people, they resort to stealing from a “mom and pop” grocery store-gas station:

In Old Opelousas I went into a grocery store to buy bread and cheese while Dean saw to gas and oil. It was just a shack; I could hear the family eating supper in the back. I waited a minute; they went on talking. I took bread and cheese and slipped out the door. We had barely enough money to make Frisco. Meanwhile Dean took a carton of cigarettes from the gas station and we were stocked for the voyage-gas, oil, cigarettes, and food. Crooks don’t know. He pointed the car straight down the road.

I wonder what it is that “crooks don’t know?” Are these the new Robin Hoods of the Beat Generation, stealing cigarettes from the poor? Don’t imagine they could have stopped and gotten a job to earn some gas money, right?

For at least a moment I was trapped in this story by this description of Bakersfield:

Suddenly we were all excited. Dean wanted to tell me everything he knew about Bakersfield as we reached the city limits. He showed me rooming houses where he stayed, railroad hotels, poolhalls, diners, sidings where he jumped off the engine for grapes, Chinese restaurants where he ate, park benches where he met girls, and certain places where he’d done nothing but sit and wait around. Dean’s California-wild, sweaty, important, the land of lonely and exiled and eccentric lovers come to forgather like birds, and the land where everybody somehow looked like brokendown, handsome, decadent movie actors.

When I was stationed at Camp Irwin for a year and a half there was one eligible girl on base for nearly fifty single officers, and the town of Barstow, that Great Gas Stop in the Desert, half way between smog-ridden Los Angeles and decadent Las Vegas, was a step down from that. So, on my long weekends off, I would travel to the big city of Bakersfield to meet women.

Usually I would end up simply looking at others dancing most of the night, drinking more than I should. Occasionally I would engage in conversation with men who had lined their rooms with tinfoil to block out signals from outer space. On a particularly unlucky night, though, I ended up spending the night with a young lady who had two delightful children. We made arrangements for a date the next weekend, but when I showed up at the house her “boyfriend” told me that she was married to a Hell’s Angel who was out of town and that she didn’t want to see me again.

Perhaps part of the appeal of Kerouac’s books is that most of us have had at least a taste of what life is like “on the road.” Perhaps some look back fondly to such memories, but I never did much like sitting in a bar asking strangers to dance, knowing that often the luckiest thing was to be turned down.

Finally, Dean, Marylou and Sal reach California again. Once again, California is anything but the fulfillment of the American Dream. You have to wonder exactly what “beatest” means in the following lines. Its immediate context makes it sound like “greatest,” but the next few sentences sound anything but great. Looking for food money seems like an unlikely way to attain enlightenment.

I lost faith in him that year. I stayed in San Francisco a week and had the beatest time of my life. Marylou and I walked around for miles, looking for food-money.

In the hotel we lived together two days. I realized that, now Dean was out of the picture, Marylou had no real interest in me; she was trying to reach Dean through me, his buddy.

Strangely enough, it is in the midst of this chaos that Kerouac has his Beatific Vision:

It made me think of the Big Pop vision in Graetna with Old Bull. And for just a moment I had reached the point of ecstasy that I always wanted to reach, which was the complete step across chronological time into timeless shadows, and wonderment in the bleakness of the mortal realm, and the sensation of death kicking at my heels to move on, with a phantom dogging its own heels, and myself hurrying to a plank where all the angels dove off and flew into the holy void of – uncreated emptiness, the potent and inconceivable radiancies shining in bright Mind Essence, innumerable lotuslands falling open in the magic mothswarm of heaven. I could hear an indescribable seething roar which wasn’t in my ear but everywhere and had nothing to do with sounds. I realized that I had died and been reborn numberless times but just didn’t remember especially because the transitions from life to death and back to life are so ghostly easy, a magical action for naught, like falling asleep and waking up again a million times, the utter casualness and deep ignorance of it. I realized it was only because of the stability of the intrinsic Mind that these ripples of birth and death took place, like the action of wind on a sheet of pure, serene, mirror-like water. I felt sweet, swinging bliss, like a big shot of heroin in the mainline vein; like a gulp of wine late in the afternoon and it makes you shudder; my feet tingled. I thought I was going to die the very next moment. But I didn’t die, and walked four miles and picked up ten long butts and took them back to Marylou’s hotel room and poured their tobacco in my old pipe and lit up. I was too young to know what had happened.

Perhaps I’m still too young to know exactly what happened here. Has near starvation caused this vision? Is it due to the use of drugs. Is it an accurate vision of the world as Sal is experiencing it? Was this the point of the whole trip, to arrive at this moment? Can such self-inflicted misery lead us to enlightenment?

Immediately after these experiences, Sal once again sets off for the East Coast.

At dawn I got my New York bus and said good-by to Dean and Marylou. They wanted some of my sandwiches. I told them no. It was a sullen moment. We were all thinking we’d never see one another again and we didn’t care.

But we, dear reader, know they will see one another again tomorrow.

A new theme and continuation of the old ones

The emphasis changes in Part II and three themes stand more prominently. One, Dean is getting crazier as he continues the quest; two, Sal is growing more disillusioned; and three, his longing for the woman he loves grows stronger. The two men are edging apart.

The Quest

It’s 1948, and Dean, now the father of a little girl, reenters Sal’s life. Ed and Galatea Dunkel leave Camille to bring Sal back from New York. Dean swings by Denver to see Marylou and swears she is the only woman he loves. Marylou leaves with Dean and Ed; Galatea has been abandoned in Tucson.

The travels cross country continue, this time in the Hudson Dean has bought with money he has earned working for the railroad. He drives to New York to pick up Sal and returns him to San Francisco with stops in Denver, New Orleans, Bakersfield. In the beginning of the novel, these road trips had some purpose, the proverbial search for the pot of gold on the opposite coast, but now the drives become more a frenzy of activity, a compulsion to keep moving.

Sex

Still in New York, as though to prove conclusively he gives no thought to the feelings of others, Dean asks Sal to make love to Marylou as he watches. He does feel somewhat shy asking–he “almost blushed” when “Finally he came out with it: he wanted me to work Marylou. I didn’t ask him why because I knew he wanted to see what Marylou was like with another man…I couldn’t do anything but laugh. It was horrible.” “Wait until we be lovers in San Francisco; my heart isn’t in it…I didn’t want to interfere, I just wanted to follow.” Sal will never be as free or as crazy as Dean–remember he’s not a beat, he’s Catholic. Thus the conflict Sal will always feel.

Love

Sal’s quest for the woman he loves continues. He has met Lucille, “a beautiful Italia n honey-haired darling.” “I want to marry a girl,” Sal tells Dean and Marylou when they arrive. “so I can rest my soul with her till we both get old. This can’t go on all the time–all this franticness and jumping around. We’ve got to go someplace, find something.” Notice he doesn’t say do something.

Sal’s aunt lets him know what she thinks of love. “The world would never find peace until men fell at their women’s feet and asked for forgiveness.” Sal says “The truth of the matter is we don’t understand our women; we blame on them and it’s all our fault.” “Lucille would never understand me because I like too many things and get all confused and hung-up running from one falling star to another till I drop. This is the night, what it does to you. I had nothing to offer anybody except my own confusion.” How right he is. Sal recognizes what might make him unlovable, but he calls it an inability of a woman to understand him. That’s his trouble.

I’m also recognizing a pattern here. The women in these men’s lives are the observers in a male dominated world. They are like moons that circle the planet, reflecting, never generating light. It’s a significant sign of the 50s, but it’s also a clue to what will always destroy any relationship Sal may find. Sal says he wants a partner, but it will always be a 70-30 deal. Sal’s aunt is right.

Lucille does understand what Dean and Marylou do to Sal, however. “When Lucille saw me with Dean and Marylou her face darkened–she sensed the madness they æ put in me.”

“I don’t like you when you’re with them.”

Ah, it’s all right, it’s just kicks. We only live once. We’re having a good time.”

No, it’s sad and I don’t like it.”

It is here that Marylou makes a pass at Sal to make Lucille jealous. Dean invites Lucille out to the car and Sal begins to see his “affair with Lucille wouldn’t last much longer. She wanted me to be her way.” That would be a bad thing?

The passion between Marylou and Dean is about to burn them up. Marylou stares at Dean so hard he feels her eyes on him and turns, seeming to know what she is thinking. She sees in Dean “…a love she knew would never bear fruit because when she looked at his hangjawed bony face with its male self-containment and absentmindedness she knew he was too mad.”

Dean loves and fears Marylou at the same time. He wants her to love him without any commitment on his part to settle down and lead a solid life.

Dean wants “a peaceful sweet understa nding of pure love between us forever with all hassles thrown out–she understands; her mind is bent on something else–she’s after me; she wont’ understand how much I love her, she’s knitting my doom.” Please note that Dean will be better off without Marylou. Her drug habit makes her a major liability.

Dean leaves Marylou and Sal in San Francisco to be with Camille. Sal has longed for this time when he and Marylou can be lovers and for a time it looks as though he will have his wish. Marylou says to Sal. “We’ll stick together. Gee, I’m sad…I wish Dean wasn’t so crazy now.”

Now Sal admits “I lost faith in him (D ean) that year. I stayed in San Francisco and had the beatest time of my life. Marylou and I walked around for miles, looking for food-money. The beatest time? Looking for food money? “Now Dean was out of the picture, Marylou had no read interest in me.” So another relationship ends.

One night Marylou disappears. Sal sees her in the foyer of her girl friend’s apartment house with a “greasy old man with a roll….“I saw what a whore she was…Now I had nobody, nothing,”

East versus West

For the few days Sal is alone in San Francisco with Marylou, the prize Sal once thought he wanted, but he watches the romance of the We st fade: “’I know,’ I said, and I looked back east and sighed. We had no money. Dean hadn’t mentioned money. ‘Where are we going to stay?’ We wandered around, carrying our bundles of rags in the narrow romantic streets. Everybody looked like a broken-down movie extra, a withered starlet; disenchanted stunt-men, midget auto-racers, poignant California characters with their end-of-the-continent sadness, handsome, decadent, Casanova-ish men, puffy-eyed motel blondes, hustlers, pimps, whores, masseurs, bellhops–a lemon lot, and how’s a man going to make a living with a gang like that?”

Youthful Exuberance

Dean’s life is growing even more chaotic and those around him are recognizing his madness. When he reunites with Marylou in Denver “She knew he was mad.” “He had become absolutely mad in his movements.” Sal recognizes the chaos &Mac254;: Make it to New York, pick up Sal, head back to New Orleans, on to San Francisco. Dean talks Sal and Marylou into driving naked a while. In San Francisco Dean has a job demonstrating pressure cookers…”He was the maddest guy in the world.”

The Beat Generation

There are warnings now from friends. It’s time to settle down. Carlo Marx (remember he’s really Allen Ginsberg) questions Ed, Marylou, Dean, and Sal about their plans to once more be on the road. One of the beats is beginning to see a destructive pattern here. At least he questions their plans, asking “What for?” “Where’s your home? What’s your job” “Sal–how comes it you’ve fallen on such sloppy days and what have you done with Lucille?” “The days of wrath are yet to come. The balloon won’t sus &Mac179;tain you much longer. And not only that, but it’s an abstract balloon. You’ll all go flying to the West Coast and come staggering back in search of your stone (anchor?).” “You pin a dragon to your hats,…you’re up in the attic with the bats.” Thus says “The Voice of Rock.”

Old Bull Lee (William Burroughs) offers up his philosophy, Sitting in his New Orleans home with the Mayan Codices in his lap, he answers Sal’s question, “What’s going to happen to us when we die?” by saying, “When you die you’re just dead, that’s all.” He also offers some insight into Dean’s mental state: ”Dean had gotten worse, he confided in me. “He seems to me to be headed for his ideal fate, which is compulsive psychosis dashed with a jigger of psychopathic irresponsibility and violence.” Frightening, but Sal continues to follow Dean whenever he calls although he is growing more reluctant to do so.

The music of the Beat Generation gets louder too, as Dean and Sal sometimes with Marylou make the rounds of the clubs. They are in awe of the jazz musicians, Rollo Greb, George Shearing, Slim Gaillard, Lampshade, Connie Jordan. They know them, listen to them, elevate them to the stature of philosophers.

Disillusionment

The friendship between Dean and Sal seems destroyed. They have burned themselves out. They are “sick and tired of everything.”

There is more drug use. Sal watches Old Bull Lee and his wife Jane, take large quantities of drugs, Marylou takes “everything in the books; she took tea, goofballs, benny, liquor and even asked old Bull for a shot of M… Bull was in the bathroom taking his fix, clutching his old black necktie in his teeth for a tourniquet and jabbing with the needle into his woesome arm with the thousand holes.”

Sal tells Marylou a story which seems to reveal much of Kerouac’s philosophy. There is “The big snake of the world that was coiled in the earth like a worm in an apple and would someday nudge up a hill to be thereafter known as Snake Hill…I told her this snake was Satan…A saint called Doctor Sax will destroy it with secret herbs…I was out of my mind with hunger and bitterness.”

Enlightenment from direct, intuitive insights

Zen Buddhism?

Zen-like references appear more frequently now. “We All Know Time…Everything is fine, God exists, we know time. Ah, but we know time” are Dean’s frequent statements. I’m out of my field here, but lessons to stay in the moment, to be aware of time, seem Zen like.

Sal begins to think of Dean in his madness becoming a mystic.

“Now dammit, look here, a ll of you, we all must admit that everything is fine and there’s no need in the world to worry, and in fact we should realize what it would mean to us to UNDERSTAND that we’re not REALLY worried about ANYTHING.”

Sal sees the oneness of the universe as he looks at the Mississippi River, “I knew like mad that everything I had ever known and would ever know was One.”

Sometimes the philosophical insights are drug or hunger induced.

“It was only the tea that we were smoking…It made me think that everything was about to arrive–the moment when you know all and everything is decided forever.”

Sal’s insight in a religious moment probably comes from hunger as he walks the San Francisco streets, peering into restaurants, smelling the food.

Near delirium, Sal imagines a restaurant owner “my strange Dickensian mother in the hash joint.” Oh son! did you not ever go on your knees and pray for deliverance for all our sins and scoundrel’s acts? L ost boy! Depart.! …”and for just a moment I had reached the point of ecstasy that I always wanted to reach, which was the complete step across chronological time into timeless shadows, and wonderment in the bleakness of the mortal realm, and the sensation of death kicking at my heels to move on, ..,I realized that I had died and been reborn numberless times but just didn’t remember especially because the transitions from life to death and back to life are so ghostly easy, a magical action for naught, like falling asleep and waking up again a million times, the utter casualness and deep ignorance it.” Dean finds and rescues him.

Language

Kerouac is often criticized for his rambling sentences and page long paragraphs, the stream of consciousness style of prose, but his style does bring an immediacy to his work, a feeling of spontaneity, a complexity that makes reading the novel pleasurable and difficult at the same time. I have found this novel impossible to skim, or at least I don’t want to. I don’t want to miss something buried in one of the paragraphs.

Conclusion to Part II

Again, on the West Coast there is no conclusion, no end of the quest for Sal, and at the end of the segment, Sal gets on a bus heading back to New York, saying good-bye to Dean and Marylou. (Yes, they are together again.) “It was a sullen moment. We were all thinking we’d never see one another again and we didn’t care.” But trust me, there are more adventures ahead for Dean and Sal.

Diane McCormick

Categories
Kerouac's On the Road

On the Road : Part One

Although On the Road was published before I started college, in seven years of college English classes I never had the opportunity to read this novel, and later I seldom had time to read novels that weren’t required for a class. Now that I’m no longer required to read student essays, I’ve finally found the time to read this “modern classic” I’ve been hearing about for years. I just wonder if I waited too long to read it. Would I have had a very different reaction to it if I had read it when I was still in college?

I have a hard time remembering what I was like at age 25, but having just returned from Vietnam I suspect I was nearly as alienated from society, nearly as “dead,” as Sal was at the beginning of the novel. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I just knew what I didn’t want to do. Judging from my much later divorce, I suspect Sal Paradise, and what an ironic name that is, didn’t feel too different than I did after the war:

I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up. I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won’t bother to talk about, except that it had something to do with the miserably weary split-up and my feeling that everything was dead. With the coming of Dean Moriarty began the part of my life you could call my life on the road.

I know that “dead” feeling. It’s hard to care about much when your personal life is a total disaster. To me, being “on the road” sounds like a synonym for running away from life, but perhaps for Sal it meant running toward life as fast as he could.

Another major character in the story, Dean Moriarity, seems to be in an even more precarious position in life:

They [Dean and Carlo] rushed down the street together, digging everything in the early way they had, which later became so much sadder and perceptive and blank. But then they danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles, exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes "Awww!"

Even though some ancient heroes like Achilles were supposed to have chosen a meteoric existence over a long, undistinguished life, personally, I would consider it a bad sign, not a good sign, if a personal friend seemed to burn like a roman candle. More recently, the character reminds me of Gatsby in The Great Gatsby. The romantic version of Marilyn Monroe’s life did sell quite a few records for Elton John, too. I almost fear that this is secretly what Kerouac wants for himself; live now and damn the future.

From the very beginning, Sal Paradise’s first trip across America seems doomed to failure for on the way out of town he is stranded and has to backtrack to where he began. After this setback, he tells himself:

It was my dream that screwed up, the stupid hearthside idea that it would be wonderful to follow one great red line across America instead of trying various roads and routes.

Things don’t appear much better half way across the United States:

I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn’t know who I was … I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost. I was halfway across America, at the dividing line between the East of my youth and the West of my future, and maybe that’s why it happened right there and then, that strange red afternoon.

Sal attributes this alienation to being “halfway” across America, but it’s hard not to suspect that there is something far more serious than geographical location working here.

While enjoying one of the few good moments on his trip to San Francisco, Sal thinks:

I wished Dean and Carlo were there – then I realized they’d be out of place and unhappy. They were like the man with the dungeon stone and the gloom, rising from the underground, the sordid hipsters of America, a new beat generation that I was slowly joining.

And that’s a good thing? If he realizes that they’re “gloomy,” “sordid” hipsters why does he want to join them. Or is this merely a form of fatalistic acceptance of his downfall?

At the end of his journey in San Francisco, Sal Paradise finally hooks up with Remi Boncouer in the promised land. But even this relationship seems doomed to failure from the very beginning. Sal says:

When I found him in Mill City that morning he had fallen on the beat and evil days that come to young guys in their middle twenties.

I certainly wish I had read that line when I was 25, maybe it would have made it easier to come to terms with my life, or maybe I would just have used it as an excuse not to deal with my problems. There seems to be some truth in the observation, though, because this is the age when many boys have to decide whether they are going to turn into men or forever remain boys, make a commitment to someone, or try to stay forever young, forever free.

It’s hard not to like Remi because he obviously has a “good heart.” But, just as the reader starts to like him, Sal reveals that Remi compulsively steals things and feels he has a right to steal. Sal’s explanation is:

Remi was just like a little boy. Somewhere in his past, in his lonely schooldays in France, they’d taken everything from him; his stepparents just stuck him in schools and left him there; he was browbeaten and thrown out of one school after another; he walked the French roads at night devising curses out of his innocent stock of words. He was out to get back everything he’d lost; there was no end to his loss; this thing would drag on forever.

At least Kerouac does a remarkably good job of creating empathy for a person who you would probably feel very hostile towards if you had to work with him.

After living with Remi for awhile, Sal Paradise realizes that he is going to have to leave San Francisco and return home:

Everything was falling apart … Remi would never talk to me again. It was horrible because I really loved Remi and I was one of the very few people in the world who knew what a genuine and grand fellow he was. … How disastrous all this was compared to what I’d written him from Paterson, planning my red line Route 6 across America. Here I was at the end of America-no more land-and now there was nowhere to go but back.

This sounds strangely like a historical theory that suggests that reaching the West Coast has dramatically changed the way American society views the world. With no more great frontiers to conquer, there is no manifest destiny to tie us together. Worst of all, there is no American frontier to run to in order to be free. It is the end of the American Dream as we have known it. Does it also suggest that Huck Finn’s dream of individual freedom from an oppressive society is over, that there is no real escape for Sal and Dean, that all they can hope for is to run away from themselves?

While returning home Sal meets Terry, a young Mexican woman, and falls in love, or at least in lust, with her. For a while he tries to settle down with her and her young son. He gradually realizes, though, that most of the time she is taking care of him. After deciding that he would pick cotton to support them, he discovers that both Terry and her young son pick cotton better than he does.

I swore and swore. I looked up at the dark sky and prayed to God for a better break in life and a better chance to do something for the little people I loved. Nobody was paying any attention to me up there. I should have known better. It was Terry who brought my soul back; on the tent stove she warmed up the food, and it was one of the greatest meals of my life, I was so hungry and tired.

Despite my fondest hopes that Sal would get a grip and grab hold of the only good thing he found on this spiritual journey, Sal continues on his way home to New York.

At the end of part one, Sal Paradise is back where he started from, seeing with his not-too-innocent road-eyes exactly what he ran away from at the beginning of the novel:

I had traveled eight thousand miles around the American continent and I was back on Times Square; and right in the middle of a rush hour, too, seeing with my innocent road-eyes the absolute madness and fantastic hoorair of New York with its millions and millions hustling forever for a buck among themselves, the mad dream-grabbing, taking, giving, sighing, dying, just so they could be buried in those awful cemetery cities beyond Long Island City.

It won’t be long before he’ll be back on the road again.

Much More on Part One

Writers are, in a way, very powerful indeed.
They write the script for the reality film.
Kerouac opened a million coffee bars and sold
a million pairs of Levis to both sexes.
Woodstock rises from his pages.
Now if writers could get together into a real tight
union, we’d have the world right by the words.
We could write our own universes, and they would
all be as real as a coffee bar or a pair of Levis
or a prom in the Jazz Age. Writers could
take over the reality studio. So they must not
be allowed to find out that they can make
it happen. Kerouac understood this long
before I did. Life is a dream, he said.

Allen Ginsberg

On the Road
By Jack Kerouac

Part I, chapters 1-14

Kerouac’s novel On the Road written in three weeks’ time on a continuing roll of paper, according to Allen Ginsberg, has had a huge impact on American literature, starting a new way of thinking, writing, and act ing for mostly the youth of America.

To read this book, one must be alert. I recommend taking notes and referring to a map.

In first person, Sal Paradise (Jack Kerouac) begins his story in the winter of 1947 in New York with the introduction of the main character, Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady), not the hero in the strict sense of the word. Sal has just split up with his wife and he’s feeling that “everything was dead.”

To begin, six characters are introduced on the first page: Sal, Dean, a recent graduate of a New Mexico reform school who wants a mutual friend, Chad King, to teach him to write; Carlo Marx (Allen Ginsberg), Dean’s new wife, Marylou. Tim Gray is another student. The setting is New York where Dean is staying in a cold water pad in Spanish Harlem.
Further reading lets the reader know that Dean is “a young Gene Autry, trim, thin-hipped, blue-eyed with a real Oklahoma accent–a sideburned hero of the s Onowy West.” MaryLou is a pretty blonde, “awfully dumb and capable of doing horrible things.” Sal interrupts Dean and MaryLou’s love making when he goes to visit Dean for the first time. Sex to Dean “was the one and only holy and important thing in life.” He materializes on the first few pages as hyperactive, sexy, wanting to know and do everything to become an intellectual and a writer but all he is at the moment is a “young jailkid.”

Marylou returns to Denver, Dean and Sal hang out and decide to go West sometime.

Sal soon recognizes Dean as a con-man with “let me stay here and you can show me how to write,” and sees him as an “overexcited nut.” But Sal doesn’t judge; instead he introduces Dean to Carlo Marx, “the holy con-man with the shining mind meets…the sorrowful poetic con-man with the dark mind.” “and I shambled after as I &’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, made to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow Roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

Dean is so attractive to Sal because all his “other current friends were ‘intellectuals,’ Chad, Carlo, Old bull Lee (William Burroughs) …or criminals like Elmer Hassel (Herbert Huncke). Dean was intelligent, Sal says, without being tedious, and his “criminality” was a “wild yea-saying overburst of American joy; it was Western, the west wind, an ode from the Plains” S al’s New York friends were in “the negative, nightmare position of putting down society…Dean just raced in society, eager for bread and love.”

July, 1947 with fifty dollars in his pocket, Sal begins to hitchhike to Denver to join Carlo, Dean, Chad, and Tim who have gone West. Manuscript stuffed in his backpack, huaraches on his feet, Sal decides the most fun way to get West is to follow Route 6 all the way to Ely, Nevada. Check the map. It’s possible. Route 6 now incorporated into much of the Interstate system runs directly through the heart of America then drops down into Los Angeles.

His enthusiasm and innocence and lack of travel experience do not make for a good start; Forty miles north of New York, he is told there is a shorter route, it begins to rain, and he is force d to return to New York on a bus to begin again, arriving in Chicago the next morning.
Continuing on the bus, Sal arrives in Davenport to begin hitchhiking to Denver. He talks to a middle aged woman on the bus, eats apple pie and ice cream at the meal stops, thinks of Denver as the Promised Land–leaving the ”East of my youth” to arrive in the “West of my future.” From Davenport to Des Moines to Omaha–through the heart of the American Midwest. He meets and talks to Eddie and they begin to hitchhike from Omaha, but a cowboy asks them to drive one of his cars across Nebraska. In Shelton, Nebraska, Eddie and Sal are offered a job setting up a carnival; they refuse–they haven’t the time. They split up when a ride comes by that has room for only one–Eddie takes the s pace, but soon Sal has another good ride for 100 miles up the road. In Gothenburg, Nebraska, Sal picks up the “greatest ride of his life” on the back of a flat bed truck with hoboes named Mississippi Gene, Montana Slim, and assorted others. They share stories of their adventures, make fun of Sal’s shoes, ragged by now. They smoke, they drink, they ogle pretty girls. The guys stop for the night in Cheyenne and Sal makes the rounds of the bars with Montana Slim. Sal attempts to pick up a girl but she already has a date with her boyfriend. Sal and Slim pick up two other girls but Sal’s girl soon goes off with a sailor. The next morning with a headache Sal begins to hitch rides again and makes it to Longmont, Colorado and is let off on Larimer Street, Denver, Colora do.

Chad greets Sal. Living arrangements have been made, but there is a rift among the friends in Denver and Sal soon learns Dean and Carlo are estranged from the group; Dean is still to Sal a “new kind of American saint.” With Carlo they were the “underground monsters together with the poolhall gang, Tom Snark, Ed Dunkel, and Roy Johnson. The conversations lasted till dawn.

Tim Gray’s folks put up Roland Major and Sal in their “swank apartment.” Carlo gets in touch with Sal and lets him know that he and Dean “are embarked on a tremendous season together. We’re trying to communicate with absolute honesty and absolute completeness exerting on our minds. We’ve had to take benzedrine. We sit on the bed , crosslegged, facing each other. I have finally taught Dean that he can do anything he wants, become mayor of Denver, marry a millionairess, or become the greatest poet since Rimbaud. But he keeps rushing out to see the midget auto races. I go with him.” Carlo reveals that Dean is divorcing Marylou because he has fallen in love with a girl named Camille. As he waits for the divorce, Dean runs from Marylou’s room to Camille, loving each in her turn. Dean has met a girl he thinks is just right for Sal–Rita Bettencourt– “fine chick, slightly hung-up on a few sexual difficulties which I’ve tried to straighten up and I think you can manage, you fine gone daddy you.” Of course they are all broke. “I haven ’t had time to work in weeks,” laments Dean.

Rita has a sister, they all party too loudly, but at the end of the revelry, Sal walks home to sleep “like a log.”

Carlo is writing and keeping a journal of everything Dean says and does. He calls him a “child of the rainbow.”

A few days later Sal, Babe and Ray Rawlins, and Tim Gray go to Central City, a ghost town in which the old opera house has been reopened. They see Fidelio. The line “What gloom” from the libretto catches the boys’ attention as they party with the cast and other tourists who have come to see the opera. As the party grows wilder, Sal wishes Dean and Carlo were there "then I realized they’d be out of place and unhappy. They were like the man with the dungeon Ì stone and the gloom, rising from the underground, the sordid hipsters of America, a new beat generation I was slowly joining.

Back in Denver Sal learns Dean and Carlo had been in Central City, just not at the same party, but Dean has Rita lined up for Sal tonight. Sal and Rita make love because Sal wants to prove to Rita how beautiful sex is, but he is “too impatient and proves nothing.” As he walks home he “wants to go and get Rita again and tell her a lot more things, and really make love to her this time, and calm her fears about men. “Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together; sophistication demands that they submit to sex immediately without proper preliminary talk. Not courting talk–real straight talk about souls, fo r life is holy and every moment is precious.”

The days in Denver are drawing short, and Sal knows his visit is about to end. He has to go further West. At the bus station, Sal buys a ticket to San Francisco, realizing he has seen very little of Dean.

Sal is to stay with Remi Boncoeur, a prep school buddy, in San Francisco. Remi is living with his girl Lee Ann and warns Sal to stay away from her. Lee Ann has hate in her eyes for both of the men. “Her ambition was to marry a rich man.” She has so far not fulfilled her ambition.

Sal has written a script he hopes will “satisfy a Hollywood director, but the tale of New York is so sad Remi can’t read it, and Lee Ann hates them so much she won’t read it so Sal discards his plan to show it. By now Remi has arranged to get Sal a job as a barracks guard, keeping the peace for men who are waiting to ship out to Okinawa to work for a year. Remi and Sal are expected to make arrests to keep their jobs, but Sal drinks along with the men the night there is serious trouble. He is berated for his poor law keeping and admits he doesn’t want to be there anymore. “All I wanted to do was sneak out into the night and disappear somewhere, and to find out what everybody was doing all over the country.” He finds no reason to judge the men. “This is the story of America. Everybody’s doing what they think they’re supposed to do. So what if a bunch of men talk in loud voices and drink the night?”

Remi decides to steal from the unlocked rooms and almost gets caught. Remi reasons he steals because “The world owes me a few things, that’s all. You can’t teach the old maestr Do new tune,” an original saying of his Remi states several times.

On one of his trips to San Francisco, a homosexual approaches Sal and Sal backs him off by showing him his gun he had used guarding the barracks. His reaction to the homosexual surprises Sal. He wants to continue using the gun to rob a jewelry store, taking the rings and bracelets to Lee Ann, then running with her to Nevada. Sal realizes he needs to leave San Francisco or he will go crazy.

Dean, Carlo, and Old Bull are now in Texas and Sal has been writing long letters to them. The relationship between Remi and Lee Ann is deteriorating and Remi’s losing money at the race track causes a huge fight. Remi ends the evening with a request that Lee Ann and Sal entertain his stepfather who is coming to town. Remi has borrowed $100 for the evening. Sal gets drunk, flirts with the stepfather’s wife, and realizes he must go back East. He has offended everyone. “New York was throwing up its cloud of dust and brown steam. There is something brown and holy about the East; and California is white like washlines and emptyheaded–at least that’s what I thought then.”

The friendship with Remi broken, Sal heads to Los Angeles. At the bus station he meets “the cutest little Mexican girl” He agonizes over speaking to her, finally does, and moves to sit beside her. As they pull into Los Angeles, Terry is sleeping in Sal’s lap and he marvels at “the whole mad thing, the ragged promised land, the fantastic end of America.”

The attraction is marred by a distrust that develops between Terry and Sal. Sal begins to think Terry is a prostitute, Terry thinks Sal must be a pimp, but the argument is ended as Terry slips into bed and they make love, “having found the closest and most delicious thing in life together, the “two tired angels of some kind, hung-up forlornly in an LA shelf.”

For over two weeks Terry and Sal are together. Sal buys marijuana which turns out to be regular tobacco, like little lambs they have long, serious talks, and travel to Bakersfield then Sabinal to find work with Terry’s family. Sal meets Rickey, Terry’s brother whose mantra is Manana. Terry introduces Sal to her seven year old son, Johny, whom Sal likes very much and all together they find a migrant workers’ tent to live in. Sal thinks he can pick cotton to support his new family. He thinks he has found his life’s work, but he is too slow to earn very much money. They eat grapes and occasionally Rickey brings bread and hamburger.

Sal’s affair wit h Terry is one of the revealing moments in the novel. Here is a short relationship that has the truth of real existence–there is a child, a need to provide a living, a desire for stability however fleeting. Sal is not ready for this and chooses to leave, but the fact that he stays with Terry, meets her brothers and her child is a step taken at a slower pace, a mark of maturation.

Terry’s husband is rumored to be looking for Sal, he can’t make enough money, he prays to “God for a better break in life and a better chance to do something for the little people I loved.” Finally he writes a postcard to his aunt, asking for $50.

Sal moves to a barn down the road from Terry’s parents–her dad will not accept Sal in his home. Terry brings him food and Sal looks at his current living arrangements as “A California home; I hid in the grapevines, digg ing it all. I felt like a million dollars; I was adventuring in the crazy American night.” But he realizes he must leave. Terry and Sal spend one more night together and then "We turned at a dozen paces, for love is a duel, and looked at each other for the last time.” Terry wants to go to New York with Sal but both of them know she will never see him again. It was “fall and I was going back to New York…Everybody goes home in October.”

Sal catches a bus in Hollywood, necks “all the way to Indianapolis with a nearsighted girl. Sal begins to hitchhike in Pittsburgh and meets the Ghost of the Susquehanna, a “shriveled little old man with a paper-satchel who claimed he was headed for ‘Canady.’” In Harrisburg” I had to sleep in the railroad station on a bench; at dawn the station masters threw me out. Isn’t it true that you start your life a sweet child believing in everything under your father’s roof? Then comes the day of the Laodiceans,* when you know you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked, and with the visage of a gruesome grieving ghost you go shuddering through nightmare life…I had no control…Gad, I was sick and tired of life…Suddenly I found myself on Times Square.”

Sal returns to his aunt’s house and together they decide to buy a new electric refrigerator with the money Sal had sent from California. "It was to be the first one in the family. She had worked old clothes into a rag rug and talked to Dean who had visited, waiting for Sal, but Dean had left for San Francisco two days before Sal returned to New York. The two friends had missed one another.

*Laodiceans: The encyclopedia identifies Laodiceans from Laodicea, a city in Asia and Asia Minor that flourished under Rome to become an early Christian center and the seat of one of the Seven Churches of Asia. A critic changes the reference to the Lystergonians, the monstrous people Odysseus meets which makes more sense. Maybe my edition of the novel has used the wrong word.

Themes

The Quest

Sal seeks the friendship of Dean, the illusive free spirit, the “hero of the snowy West.” Actually, he spends very little time with Dean in Part I. They crisscross America, missing each other on either coast. I don’t get the impression Sal wants to be like Dean–he is much too Catholic to be that reckless– he just wants to observe him, be inspired by him.
Sal is always the observer in the beginning of the novel. Not until he meets Terry does he actually play a role in someone else’s life.

The second part of the quest is manifested in the dizzy travels across America in a bus, in a car, hitchhiking, the searching for something, the exuberance of the hunt. Will Sal find “It” on the East Coast, on the West Coast? Where?

The third part of the quest is for the woman Sal loves. He has not met her yet, but he knows she is out there. All he has to do is find her.

Love

Sal un derstands the conflict in loving another person. For him love is a duel.

Sex
Which brings us to sex. Sex is is the one and only holy and important thing in life. Even Dean knows that. There is tenderness and almost reverence in Sal’s treatment of women. He wants to demonstrate to Rita that sex is beautiful with real straight talk about souls.

East versus West

The two coasts fascinate Sal. Where will he be the most comfortable, the most involved, the most fulfilled? No conclusion is drawn, no commitment is made; therefore the quest does not end.

Youthful exuberance

Sal is young, almost running from one friend, one apartment, one party to another. There are too many things to do, to see, to discuss, to write, and he can’t stop long enough to focus on any one thing or person for very long.

The Beat Generation

By the end of Part I Sal is growing up as he traverses America. He begins to see himself more akin to Dean and Carlo, leaving his school buddies behind. Dean and Carlo are the sordid hipsters of America, a new beat generation he is slowly joining. (See yesterdays’ blog for more about the beats.)

The beginning of the disillusionment

By the end of Part I Sal is losing his innocence. He has become weary “Gad, I was sick and tired of life.” He hasn’t found what he was looking for, he has not found the woman he loves. He has no control which is beginning to bother him.

Language

Kids read this book in the ’50s because it was supposed to be filled with sex, drugs, rock and roll, and it is, but how tame the language appears now. Sal says “Gad” and “Lackaday.” The “F” word never appears. Sal and Dean make love to or just “make” women. No one swears. All pretty tame stuff compared to today’s mass market novels.

Diane McCormick