I finished Jack Kerouac’s book The Dharma Bums last week and enjoyed it. It was well written and has some smidgens of spiritual insight, but was hardly what I would call profound. This past week I have been reading Kerouac’s “masterpiece,” his first book, On the Road.
Some have claimed that On the Road was to the “Beat Generation” of the 1950’s what The Sun Also Rises was to the Lost Generation of the 1920’s. If that be so, then the Beat Generation didn’t have much to say. On the Road is most certainly not in the same league as Hemingway’s novel.
On the Road has passages of writing that are delightful, colorful and fresh. But the book, like its protagonists Sal and Dean, has no point or purpose. It is more like a travel diary, filled with disjointed events and people, making sudden turns and twists at the whim of its author.
Sal, a Navy vet from World War II spends all his time hitchiking and otherwise traveling back and forth across the continent, from New York to San Francisco and back, several times. The action takes place from 1947 to 1949. The descriptions of the people and towns along the road are interesting and colorful, but the only theme is narcissism – a selfish preoccupation with one’s own sudden whims, passing desires and appetites. Narcissism is a personality disorder that Dean has, and Sal, to a lesser exent. The definition of narcissism is this:
The self-aggrandizement and self-absorption of narcissistic individuals is accompanied by a pronounced lack of interest in and empathy for others. They expect people to be devoted to them but have no impulse to reciprocate, being unable to identify with the feelings of others or anticipate their needs. Narcissistic people often enter into relationships based on what other people can do for them.
So as Sal and Dean and other friends travel back and forth across the country, they steal food, gasoline and cigarettes, get drunk a lot, try to pick up girls, and take advantage of many people who befriend them or give them food, shelter or love. A good novel might well make use of narcissism in its characters to work towards an epiphany or make a moral point, but don’t expect that of On the Road. Kerouac is celebrating narcissism, not condemning it. That might explain why Kerouac died of cirrohsis of the liver at 47: apparently, he drank himself to death.
Sal, the major character of the novel, hero-worships his friend Dean Moriarty, who is described as a “mystic.” Dean, however, is about as mystical as a doorknob. He has zero concern for the feelings, comforts or property of others, an utterly shallow and selfish man. Sal and Dean are hired to drive a 1947 Cadillac from Nebraska to Chicago, with two seminary students as passengers, who contribute money for gas. Dean drives at speeds up to 110 miles per hour, takes reckless risks on the road, slowly destroying the Cadillac. The car is a dented, filthy wreck when it is finally delivered to its owner in Chicago.
If Kerouac had a message to impart in On the Road, it was apparently this: have fun, use people, avoid work at all costs, get drunk and live a life utterly devoid of purpose or meaning. I am not impressed.