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.


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.


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

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.


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