The road reluctantly travelled

At the city bookshop, browsing for outings to take back to my small-town home, ensuring I don’t miss the Classics section, looking for a manageable spine of less than 2cm … why doesn’t the air conditioning reach this corner … overheating … choose quickly please.

Love a Penguin.

Many months pass, the pandemic rolls around and movements are restricted. Downtime, and I’m forced to rethink my access to the outside world. Counterpoint; finding I own a book about road trips when I cannot travel further than the local supermarket.

What happens when the fiction you are reading reveals a non-fictional world that existed (or exists) AND you don’t like what you see?

In Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, an assortment of characters travel back and forth across the United States numerous times in various vehicles. The story is set between 1947 and 1950. The book’s Introduction says that the characters were real people, fictionalised up to a point, and that the journeys happened, although highly edited. Such a plot appeals to me.

Yet I start to feel stressed. This book is not a page turner, and I feel no personal investment in the characters. Is this the result of contemporary sensitivities toward a book written in the 1950s?

But pages are turned, as I sit bathed in the warm sun on the enclosed verandah and when curled up under the doona, shutting out the cold. The pandemic means there are plenty of opportunities to keep returning.

Perhaps this book should be read when travelling so that it doesn’t infect safe and familiar places.

By Part Three (of Five), it’s abandoned. It’s not just that America was such a horrible place. It’s also the hyperactive high pitch of the characters; it’s the elusiveness of it’s jazz metaphors; it’s the way it feels both expansive and claustrophobic at the same time, at a time when a distant horizon is all that’s needed.

But mostly … and it’s not just this book … it’s people coping with their extremely limited world view and the resulting mis-steps that propel their story into further unpleasantness.

A week later, I’m tackling Part Three. It’s like drinking sachet cappuccino that’s been furiously stirred to ensure there are no lumpy bits. Real, yet not, and inevitable at this point.

Part Four is the trip to Mexico and the jazz references increase and the paragraphs seem longer. I jump to Part Five to be done with it. Two phrases from the last pages – ‘ragged in a motheaten overcoat’ – ‘the forlorn rags of growing old’ – tumble past the final full stop.

Why was this book located in the Classics section of the bookshop? The Introduction gave some hints, but more research is needed to place this into context.

If Wikipedia is to be believed, and sometimes it can, the author did not intend the story to leave such a sour note with the reader. Though it did divide the critics when it was published. Instead, the book was supposed to show how his generation searched for answers, the meaning of life, and for that sense of belonging; it’s supposed to be a spiritual journey in search of bliss.

On the Road is said to have set the template for innumerable road novels and movies that followed, and influenced many poets, writers, actors and musicians, although interestingly the list provided only contains male names.

I see the movie Thelma and Louise in a new light and love it even more.

By adding context that appeals to reason rather than emotion, it is possible for me to look beyond my experience of On the Road and glimpse the world within as the author intended … albeit a brief and perhaps superficial glimpse … but enough that I’m less inclined to judge it so negatively.

But that does not mean I would willingly read another of Kerouac’s books. There are too many other worlds, and time is limited.

The temperature continues to drop as the year progresses. There’s rain on the horizon. Let’s find a different book and make a cup of tea.


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