Personal Best: On The Road

"On the Road", by Jack Kerouac.

Published September 30, 1996 10:15AM (EDT)

the problem with being a Fabulous Yellow Roman Candle -- to borrow Jack Kerouac's famous term for those "who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time" -- is what you might politely call the fizzle-out factor. Kerouac fizzled out worse than most. Like nearly all of the Beat writers, he published groaning loads of what the critic Seymour Krim once called "raw junk" under a "Kotex flag of liberation." Wander far from his better-known work and it's easy to find yourself waist-deep in a literary Big Muddy of overcharged prose and undercharged thinking.

But that said, Kerouac's "On the Road" retains for me its galloping, yea-saying potency. It certainly is the book that Changed My Life (groan), even if I feel a little hesitant about admitting it. (It'd be far more glamorous to single out something by Genet or Conrad.) But then I was probably right smack in the middle of Kerouac's core constituency -- a fat pimply kid in suburbia who simply had no idea, until this book fell into his hands, that literature could promise quite this much. As a hapless young writer, too, I can testify to his emancipating example. As Thomas Pynchon said about "On the Road" in his introduction to his collection of short fiction, "Slow Learner": "It was actually OK to write like this! Who knew?"

I haven't reread "On the Road" for probably five years, but whole sections of it -- sections full of an almost Whitmanesque ecstasy -- pop to mind unbidden. His unfussy description of Dean Moriarty, for example, captures the essence of a uniquely American character in the way a more precise writer probably never could:

... to him sex was the one and only holy and important thing in life, although he had to make a living and so on. You saw that in the way he stood bobbing his head, always looking down, nodding, like a young boxer to instructions, to make you think he was listening to every word, throwing in a thousand 'Yesses' and 'That's Rights.' My first impression of Dean was of a young Gene Autry -- trim, thin-hipped, blue-eyed, with a real Oklahoma accent -- a sideburned hero of the snowy West.

Was Jack Kerouac a great writer? Probably not. Will I reread him more gratefully than most Great Writers I can think of? Absolutely.

By Dwight Garner

Dwight Garner is Salon's book review editor.

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