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The tones used in Jack Kerouac’s narrative On the Road are various. Sometimes the tone is colloquial, as in the statement “I was beginning to get the bug like Dean.” Sometimes the tone is vivid and brimming with slang, as here:
They danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I've been doing all my life after people who interest me, because 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 that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn...
As the second half of the statement just quoted suggests, sometimes the tone is exciting and almost ecstatic, full of energy and verve. Sometimes the tone is intellectual and somewhat jaded, as when the narrator mentions his
New York friends . . . in [their] negative, nightmare position of putting down society and giving their tired bookish or political or psychoanalytical reasons.
Sometimes the tone is adventurous and romantic with a capital R, as when the narrator says,
Somewhere along the line I knew there'd be girls, visions, everything; somewhere along the line the pearl would be handed to me.
Sometimes the tone seems rooted in particular moments in the history of popular culture, as in the references to “bop,” a style of music fashionable at the time but largely forgotten today. Sometimes the tone is almost disturbingly surrealistic, as in the following passage:
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, hearing the hiss of steam outside, and the creak of the old wood of the hotel, and footsteps upstairs, and all the sad sounds, and I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn't know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds.
At other times, however, the tone emphasizes beauty and wonder:
The air was soft, the stars so fine, the promise of every cobbled alley so great, that I thought I was in a dream.
Sometimes the tone mixes the mythic with the highly contemporary, as when the narrator comments,
They were like the man with the dungeon stone and gloom, rising from the underground, the sordid hipsters of America, a new beat generation that I was slowly joining.
Sometimes the tone seems almost playful, especially in its use of alliteration and other sound effects, as when the narrator explains that
We fumed and screamed in our mountain nook, mad drunken Americans in the mighty land. We were on the roof of America and all we could do was yell, I guess--across the night...
Sometimes the tone is reflective, assessing contemporary life while also offering visionary, ideal alternatives to that life:
Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together; sophistication demands that they submit to sex immediately without proper preliminary talk. Not courting talk--real straight talk about souls, for life is holy and every moment is precious.
In that last sentence, one hears the almost religious (but secular) fervor that sometimes characterizes Kerouac’s reflections on his own life, life in the United States in the mid-twentieth century, and life in general.
In short, Kerouac’s narrative is a work of multiple tones and varied styles.
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