Musings on Jack Kerouac’s iconic American novel (as we prepare for the release of the film) by Indigo Clarke.
“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles…” Jack Kerouac frantically typed over sixty years ago, writing his ground-breaking novel in just three weeks – and as it turns out, the mad ones are the ones for us too. The mad, impassioned, burning-at-both-ends characters that cross our paths as we lead lives less ordinary – those who fuel our imaginations, and make us feel at home in our own bohemian worlds. We didn’t need to be part of the Beat generation to find a companion in Jack Kerouac, and his alter ego, Sal Paradise – to recognize an epic, and false, hero in Neal Cassady’s avatar Dean Moriarty, "Though he was a con-man, he was only conning because he wanted so much to live and to get involved with people who would otherwise pay no attention to him"… And to find that our perspective on life, travel and youth changed as we devoured the pages of this superlative spontaneous prose for the first time.
For most of us it was as teenagers that we discovered On The Road, and felt a yearning to travel with little planning and even less money. “We all realized we were leaving confusion and nonsense behind and performing our one and noble function of the time, move. And we moved!” muses Kerouac, and we moved with him. “The purity of the road. The white line in the middle of the highway unrolled... As if glued to our groove.” Many of us got there – living and working in cities distant and unfamiliar, finding success where we least expected it, our object being adventure and to gain experience over all else. Even if that experience wasn’t immediately positive, it made us feel alive. "I woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn't know who I was – I was far away from home, haunted and tired with travel, in a cheap hotel room I'd never seen…” remembers Kerouac as Sal Paradise, “And I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn't know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds."
"It changed my life like it changed everyone else's," Bob Dylan once said – himself a visionary poet and musician that went on to rouse the next generation, and beyond. So too Tom Waits has acknowledged the novel's influence, describing the Beats as "father figures." One of the most amazing things about On The Road is that while it stands as iconically American and generation-defining, it has the rare power to incite the individual on a completely personal level. Mention On The Road to anyone who has read it, and they’ll remember where and when they first delved into Kerouac’s visceral universe – it’s a novel that resonates with us because it captures the fearlessness and vulnerability with which we approach our youth. Kerouac captured so perfectly what it is to be young and to be free without fixed intentions, but to have faith somehow that the path we are forging is the right one. "As we roll along this way I am positive beyond doubt that everything will be taken care of for us,” Says Dean Moriarty. “That even you, as you drive, fearful of the wheel, the thing will go along of itself and you won't go off the road and I can sleep."
Essentially a road-map of beat culture, On the Road takes pit-stops at the most influential figures of the time – their identities thinly veiled under pseudonyms: writer William Burroughs (Old Bull Lee), poet Allen Ginsberg (Carlo Marx), writer and poet John Clellon Holmes (Tom Saybrook) central figure in the Beat world Lucien Carr (Damion) and Carolyn Cassady a writer and wife of Neal Cassidy (Camille) among others shape the narrative. Written as a stream-of-consiousness on a single ream of 120-foot paper, the resulting text, while revolutionary, has an inherent humbleness to it – and it is this quality that has allowed subsequent generations to relate to it so wholly. It follows Kerouac’s ruminations on humanity, friendship, and, of course, Jazz – the all-American trailblazing sound that swept an entire generation into an unthinkably new social, cultural and political landscape.
On the Road’s excursion through the peaks and pitfalls of intense friendship, experiences, wild-living and pursuit for revelation and self-fulfillment are timeless – and will no doubt make for an intriguing film. Of course, we can’t help but be a little worried about this impending interpretation; how will Kerouac’s 1940s/50s Americana landscape be translated? How will the characters be brought to life – and will we believe in them? When the book was originally released, The New York Times hailed it as "the most beautifully executed, the clearest and most important utterance" of Kerouac's generation, we wonder - how will the film fare for ours? After all, today more than ever (given that we are, as irritating as it sounds, the Facebook generation - with more people on the 'book' than living in the USA) we are across the globe, “and from one end of the country to the other ... all in the same vast backyard doing something so frantic and rushing-about.”