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.