I’ll be honest with you–after reading On the Road, the Subterraneans, and many excerpts of his other novels, I’m all Jack Kerouac-ed out. I’m currently in a class about the Beat Writers and so will have to continue reading his works even after I’m tired of them. There’s something very rewarding about delving deep into an author. If I have to follow another one of his sentences going nowhere I might just…! This is not to say I don’t appreciate him for the ground-breaking and interesting things he’s doing. I love the idea of “spontaneous prose,” and his pouring out of everything as he remembers it happening. His prose has a wild runaway quality to it, like you’re trying to leap onto a very fast-moving train. And however much it’s ecstatic and ebullient and convinced of the Greater Meaning in things, Kerouac is also terribly sad.
Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty go back and forth and all around the country aimlessly. They refuse to be tied down by “responsibility” or “maturity,” much to the chagrin of the women whose lives they wreak havoc upon from coast to coast. They are in search of something, something nameless. The father Dean will never find, or the America Sal explores but is never quite a part of–the outsider spirit. So while Sal Paradise spews grand sentences of the feeling of the country coursing through his veins, On the Road is also shadowed by a great melancholy. I think it stems out of their purposelessness or emptiness. That even while they seem to be so full and so free, they’re just lost.
There’s a passage in On the Road that was so sad and so beautiful and it made me say, “Okay, Jack, maybe we can be friends after all.” It’s because I’ve felt like this, too.
“I realized these were all the snapshots which our children would look at someday with wonder, thinking their parents had lived smooth, well-ordered lives and got up in the morning to walk proudly on the sidewalks of life, never dreaming the raggedy madness and riot of our actual lives, our actual night, the hell of it, the senseless emptiness.”
Sal’s looking at pictures and thinking about the way they’ll be interpreted as time goes on. How all of our complexities and our spirits are reduced to a smile, a pose, whose arm is around us, the background of the photo. The story moving before and after that frozen moment in time will always be forgotten. Who we were at that moment will be mythologized, but the reality will never be known. Instead tattered photographs, curled at the edges, will become the stuff of the stories of our lives as it’s remembered. It makes me think of all the photos I’ve seen of my parents. I look at them–these strangers–and think how much more I understand them because I knew what they looked like when they were my age. But the truth is, I know nothing of their madness and their joy and their lives. I only have that moment they happened to smile at a camera, not the riot of
their actual lives.
This might not be the most remarkable or the most characteristic of Kerouac’s writing, but to me, it was perfect. Isn’t that it, really? That the riot of our lives will only be known by the people who are in the picture with us. And the sadness that Sal and Dean don’t stay friends means that their shared memories will be scattered into just that, memories, words on a page.