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.


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.


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.


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.


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