Monday, September 10, 2007

The fact behind the myth

  • Rolf Potts discusses the legacy (dubious and otherwise) of Jack Kerouac at World Hum.
Sure, spontaneity is good and holy, but there is something unhinged and aimless about Sal and Dean’s Benzedrine-addled wanderings. Dean is a compulsive hustler with serious attention-deficit issues; Sal is a boozy brooder who rarely exudes any lasting satisfaction with his experiences. Granted, Sal’s solo adventures early on in the book vividly portray the joys and challenges of hitchhiking—and one can feel the ecstatic energy of his house party with Ray Rawlins and Tim Gray in the mountains above Denver—but once Dean fully enters the story, the pair’s travels turn sloppy.

Indeed, Sal and Dean cover a lot of miles between San Francisco and New York, but their adventures along the way are rarely more remarkable than what one might encounter in the freshman-pledge wing of a fraternity house: booze is swilled and dope is smoked; money is borrowed and hoarded, then frittered away on dumb indulgences; women are longed for, seduced and abandoned. In the third section of the book, which starts off with Dean leaving his pregnant wife in California, Sal and Dean repeatedly fantasize about running off to Italy, strangely oblivious to the American surroundings racing past outside the car window. When the pair later travels down to Mexico, their sojourn ends up less a quest for beauty and discovery than dope and hookers. Along the way, the Sal and Dean experience occasional moments of jubilation, but, as Why Kerouac Matters author John Leland and others have pointed out, “On the Road” is at heart a morose book, laced with refrains of disappointment and sadness.

Why, then, does “On the Road” remain such a potent romantic metaphor for the joys of travel? I’d reckon this has less to do with its actual content than with the myth that surrounds it.

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