Have you ever read Jack Kerouac?
An interesting author, not least because he was something of a hybrid creator, although he kept it secret during his lifetime.
On the Road is an unfolding panorama of America, crisscrossed by GIs just back from the total destruction of World War II, who must be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (although this term was not current in the late 1940s).
Sal, Dean and the other disjointed characters have a hard time finding their place in the economy of abundance. They cannot connect to anything for very long. These young men have a rage to write, create, defy conventions, explore, lose themselves, fuse with searing jazz performances in smoky bars.
They are subject to “routine paranoiac visions” brought on no doubt by booze and amphetamines. They want to have sex with every willing young woman, but actually getting to know women seems out of the question. There are no real female characters.
This is a novel about young men wandering along the knife-edge of existence, bumming like hobos, jumping freight trains, huddling around campfires, crossing a few states just to crash at someone’s place, scrounging a few dollars, stealing cars then racing them hard across the prairie.
Kerouac actually wrote Sur le chemin – the first draft of On the Road – in the broken colloquial phonetic French of his Franco-American childhood in Lowell, Massachusetts. Sur le chemin is a rough piece of writing, and reads more like a notebook than a novel. It was only revealed to the world in 2006, when the Kerouac archives were opened. Kerouac experiments with the French language in Sur le chemin. Although he may have initially thought the story out in French, then translated himself, his English is far stronger. Jean-Christophe Cloutier, a University of Pennsylvania professor who translated Sur le chemin into English for the Library of America, wrote me recently that Kerouac considered himself a French Canadian, although he was a US citizen.
I get the impression from Kerouac that the past is inaccessible, and the innocence of childhood is a sad, long-gone memory, lost somewhere in exile.
The present is a dark empty space – like in a film noir – a space full of anxiety and sadness. Sal, Dean and the others blunt their pain with alcohol, bennies and wild kicks. Whatever happens in the present is random, and in that unplanned randomness is a grim explosive kind of liberty.
As for the future, well, tragedy looms on the horizon, and will most likely catch up with the characters, no matter how hard they run.
There are no limits in the everything-or-nothing world of On the Road. From page to page, you keep wondering whether the characters are about to end up dead in a roadside ditch, as mud-spattered forgotten hobos.