Jack Kerouac

When I first read Kerouac’s On the Road it made a deep impression on me. In some ways it may be one of the most influential books I have ever read. It changed, or at least rationalized, not only how I thought, but also, to some extent, how I lived.

I grew up in Omaha. It is a small city, but I lived in the suburbs and there was little useful public transportation. My world was the neighborhood, the school and the church. The neighborhood was a sprawling suburb of ranch homes with large yards; the major road that took us away from the subdivision was almost a mile away. School was more like Republican Chamber of Commerce indoctrination than education and church was a very conservative fundamentalist evangelicalism.

I could identify with On the Road in ways that were not possible with William Blake, Aristotle, Schopenhauer, Rimbaud, Kafka, Proust or Tolstoy—other writers that I really loved at the time. Kerouac was American; he grew up in a small town, had a less than brilliant college career and then escaped to explore a larger world. The places that he wrote about in On the Road seemed familiar to me, they resembled were I grew up. I think there may even be a scene or two that takes place in Nebraska. At least, many of the scenes were in places that were similar to Nebraska and so had a reality that I just could not get from Search for Lost Time or War and Peace. I loved On the Road so much that I set out to read all of Kerouac’s books. I would not recommend this to others.

The Subterraneans and The Dharma Bums are reasonable imitations of On the Road, with similar characters and prose style. They are probably worth reading if you like On the Road. Desolation Angels is also similar but is far less interesting and could benefit from a good editor. Satori in Paris and Lonesome Traveler are less spontaneous and more deliberate so they don’t seem as wild, rambling and incoherent as some of his other books. On the other hand they also seem less inspired. Worth reading if you want the Kerouac philosophy or point-of-view without the dizzy, rambling, experimental prose. Vanity of Duluoz and Maggie Cassidy are autobiographical and written in a more straight-forward naturalistic style. They give a fictionalized account of Kerouac’s early life in Lowell. Part of the appeal for me was Kerouac’s experimental style and his life of traveling, so I found these books unreadable, boring and dull. Dr. Sax is highly experimental. It has moments of brilliance, but even more moments of banality and tedium. It is a potentially great idea, not fully executed. I found myself both loving and hating it. It is probably better to read Asturias’ Men of Maize, Mulata or Marquez’ One Hundred Years of Solitude which are in a similar vein, but hold together in a way the Dr. Sax never quite achieves.

In some ways Dr. Sax is emblematic of all of Kerouac’s work. I feel that he had some brilliant ideas and a willingness to explore experiment and push the boundaries of his prose and his life; but never developed the discipline or skill to craft them into a coherent, unified work. The success of his writing seems to depend less on his ability as a writer and more on chance combination. I have been curious to read the new edition of On the Road, but also ambivalent about reading it as an adult. I fear that actually reading the book may not be as exciting or enjoyable as remembering reading the book.


~ by severalfourmany on September 13, 2007.

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