On the Road: Wandering with Jack Kerouac

On the Road

They say how you do one thing is how you do everything.

Ok, this is how I garden.  I go into the back yard, because it’s a nice day and I’m going to look around.  I won’t stay long. Those seedlings need water.  Better get the hose.  I should probably deadhead that nicotiana soon – I’ll just take off a few of the old flowers now.  While I’m here I might as well tie back that rose cane that’s threatening to behead visitors.  Hmm, there’s a bit of clover invading the lawn – I’ll just take a few moments to pull it out.

And so on.  Three hours later I’m sunburnt, no closer to what I was supposed to do today, and wondering what the hell happened.

On the Road is a bit like that.  Jack Kerouac (Sal Paradise in the novel) wrote it from notebooks he kept while travelling in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s with Neal Cassady, (fictionalized as Dean Moriarty).  Dean is the catalyst for the journey, a manic jester who may be a spirit guide or just plain nuts. (If you want to get a sense of Neal/Dean, you can see him speaking here.) Or, as one character observes, “He seems to me to be headed for his ideal fate, which is compulsive psychosis dashed with a jigger of psychopathic irresponsibility and violence.” (And if they do nothing else, I hope they keep that line in the movie.)  In a series of road trips over three years the pair travel across America, spontaneously taking jobs, leaving jobs, picking up women, leaving women and meeting a variety of other drifters, pilgrims, sirens and poets.

Moriarty’s motivation for moving from place to place seems to be a compulsive need for new sensation and poor impulse control.   But Paradise is on a spiritual quest.  He meets Dean at a crossroads in his life, “not long after my wife and I split up”, (in the original manuscript it was “not long after my father died”) and his journey is bracketed by loss.  Throughout he looks for the divine in every drifter, drunk, woman, dewy morning and starlit sky.   And if the book doesn’t have a clear resolution or one defining, revelatory moment, well, who can’t relate to that?

Because how you do one thing is how you do everything, Kerouac wrote the book on a scroll he manufactured from sheets of paper taped together so he could type his freeform prose without stopping to change the paper.  And the writing – rambling, slangy, emotionally overwrought and richly descriptive – follows the prescription Kerouac would later give other writers:  “wild typewritten pages, for yr own joy…remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition”.

On the Road defined a generation that came to be known as the “Beats” and influenced countless artists including Hunter S. Thompson and Bob Dylan.  Some of Dylan’s song titles echo Kerouac directly (Visions of Johanna, Desolation Row), and the long narratives and colourful characters of Highway 61 Revisited and Blonde on Blonde are very reminiscent of the novel. But it’s not just the songs that make me think of Kerouac when I hear Dylan, it’s the trajectory of his career.

From idolizing and emulating Woody Guthrie to recording a Christmas album, Dylan sticks out his thumb and climbs into any car.  He’ll try anything, including music in virtually every genre of the American vernacular, as well as drawing, painting, writing and filmmaking. The results may be transcendently beautiful or baffling and unpopular, but that doesn’t seem to matter much to the artist.  (Or maybe it does and he’s just brave.  “I hurt easy, I just don’t show it”, he sings in Things Have Changed.)

I think that’s why I love Bob Dylan.  (Apart from the genius songwriting, I mean, and that weird, inimitable voice.) Not because he’s a protest singer, or a blues singer, or a country singer, a poet or a painter.  But because he’s a sojourner. On the highway, backroads, or detoured onto some strange path by whim or necessity, there are no guarantees you’ll be happy where you end up.  But he’s still looking around, trying things.  That, and the element of surprise, are what keep me listening.

And it’s not just the drug fueled activities of a couple of  lost souls, but the affinity for the search that keeps you reading through the dated and sometimes awkward prose and disjointed, episodic plotline of On the Road.  And what kept Jack Kerouac writing novels and poetry for the rest of his short life, “submissive to everything, open, listening”.

Because how you do one thing is how you do everything.

I’m sitting on my patio on a Monday afternoon, thinking about Jack Kerouac, Neal Cassady and Bob Dylan, the unwinding road before me, and in my head the voice of the wandering spirit.