Summary of the Novel
Sal Paradise, a writer and college student, lives in Paterson, New Jersey with his aunt. He spends much of his time with his eccentric and artistic friends in New York City. One of his friends, Chad King, introduces him to Dean Moriarty, a young man recently released from a reformatory in New Mexico. Dean spends the winter in New York, then moves back west to Denver in the spring. A few months later, Sal follows him to Colorado.
Sal hitchhikes west, learning more about himself and the many intriguing people he meets along the way. He arrives in Denver and connects with a group of his New York friends. He moves into an apartment with his friend Roland Major, but Sal is anxious to see Dean who is on a tight schedule, hustling back and forth between his wife, Marylou, and his girlfriend, Camille. Sal roars around Denver with Dean and other friends and goes to a party in Central City. After a few weeks, he leaves on a bus for San Francisco.
In San Francisco, Sal moves in with his friend, Remi Boncoeur, and Remi’s girlfriend, Lee Ann. Remi gets Sal a job as a special policeman at a barracks for overseas workers. Sal hates working with the other cops there who are miserable and narrow-minded. After a few months, Sal leaves San Francisco and travels to L.A. On the bus he meets Terry, a young Mexican-American woman, and they fall in love.
Sal goes with Terry to Sabinal, her hometown near Bakersfield. He meets her family, moves into a tent with her and her young son, Johnny, and gets a job picking cotton. But he soon realizes that he can’t make enough money to support Terry and her son. He persuades Terry to move back with her family and he returns to his life in New York alone.
A year later, at Christmas time, Sal and his aunt are visiting relatives in Virginia when Dean, Marylou, and Ed Dunkel arrive from California. Sal takes off with them, first to New York, then to Louisiana where they visit their friend, Old Bull Lee, who lives in New Orleans. Sal, Dean, and Marylou drive back out to San Francisco where Sal and Dean have another raucous time. Dean moves in with Camille, but Sal soon gets sick of Dean’s craziness. He takes a bus back to New York by himself.
Another year passes and Sal travels west to Denver again, and then to California. When he visits Dean and Camille in San Francisco, Camille throws both men out. Sal and Dean decide to return to New York together. On the way east, they spend a wild week drinking and stealing cars in Denver before recklessly speeding to Chicago where they spend a few days listening to jazz and bop musicians. When they arrive in New York, Dean promptly falls in love with a woman named Inez.
In the spring, Sal leaves New York and heads west again. He stops in Denver, meets up with some old friends, and plans to go to Mexico. Two weeks later, Dean drives out to join him, unable to resist the lure of the road. Sal, Dean, and a new friend, Stan Shephard, leave for Mexico in another of Dean’s broken down cars.
They drive south through Colorado, New Mexico, and Texas and finally cross the border into Mexico. They are excited to be in a foreign country, delighted with the friendly people, and amazed by the striking desert landscape. In Gregoria they meet a young man, Victor, who supplies them with marijuana and takes them to a brothel where they spend the afternoon, drinking, dancing, and having sex with a number of women. That night they leave Gregoria and sleep on a road in the steaming jungle, waking up covered in sweat and bugs.
Feeling as if they have become a part of the jungle, they drive on towards Mexico City. On a jungle road they meet some young Indian girls whose purity and simple way of life make a deep impression on Sal and Dean.
Mexico City is an abrupt, chaotic contrast to the earthy, peaceful jungle. Sal, Dean, and Stan roam the busy streets, experiencing everything in the crowded, noisy city. Sal gets dysentery and becomes very ill, but Dean leaves him in Mexico to go back to Inez in New York. Sal recovers and eventually makes his way north, returns to New York, and falls in love with a woman named Laura.
Sal sees Dean one more time when Dean comes to visit him in Manhattan. It is a brief, painful visit; Sal is more involved now with his New York friends, and Dean has difficulty explaining himself, trying to describe to Sal how he feels about him. As Sal goes off to a concert with friends, Dean leaves New York, all alone on a freezing night, heading back to California. Later, Sal sits on a pier and reflects on their friendship and times they spent together.
The Life and Work of Jack Kerouac
Jack Kerouac had a major influence on an entire generation of Americans following the publication of On The Road, his semi-autobiographical novel that became the bible of the Beat Generation in the 1950s. Kerouac’s impact continued into the next decade as the hippie movement developed during the 1960s and writers such as Ken Kesey, Tom Robbins, and songwriter Bob Dylan produced works influenced by Kerouac’s spontaneous, confessional, free-thinking style.
Jack Kerouac was born Jean-Louis Lebrid de Kerouac to French-Canadian parents on March 12, 1922 in Lowell, Massachusetts, a mill town thirty miles northwest of Boston. Kerouac spoke only French until he was seven years old, and his French-Canadian and Roman Catholic background had a strong influence on him throughout his life. In school, he was an excellent though somewhat rebellious student. He was also a gifted athlete and was awarded a football scholarship to Columbia University in 1940.
After living in New York City and attending school for two years, Kerouac dropped out of college, joined the Merchant Marines and, later, the U.S. Navy. However, Kerouac was at odds with the Navy’s many rules and highly disciplined routine. He received an honorable, though early, discharge which cited him for “indifferent character.” When he returned to school in New York, he became acquainted with a number of other writers and intellectuals who would have a profound effect on his life. Writers Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and William Burroughs, along with Kerouac and their friend Neal Cassady, would become the core of what was eventually known as the Beat Generation.
After meeting Cassady in 1944, Kerouac embarked on a series of road trips, traveling to Colorado, California, and Mexico. These journeys, and his friendship with Neal, would become the basis for On The Road which was published in 1957, ten years after he began making notes for the book. Kerouac’s many friends appeared as characters in the book, although he changed their names and some details of their lives. Allen Ginsberg (Carlo Marx), William Burroughs (Old Bull Lee), Neal Cassady (Dean Moriarty), and Kerouac himself (Sal Paradise) were all key players in the novel’s wild narrative. Kerouac wrote the first complete version of On The Road in April, 1951 during an intensive three week writing stint when he typed the entire novel on a single, continuous roll of paper. Later he would describe this method as “sketching” or “spontaneous prose,” a technique that would be the hallmark of all his subsequent work.
Before he finished On The Road, Kerouac published his first novel, The Town and The City, in 1950. This fictionalized account of his early life received critical praise, although sales were modest. Kerouac continued to work odd jobs to support his travels around the United States.
In the six years between the completion of On The Road and its eventual publication, Kerouac remained prolific, writing a series of novels he considered to be one long story about his family and friends. Included in this series were Visions of Cody, Tristessa, Doctor Sax, and The Subterraneans. During this time he also became interested in Buddhism and introduced Buddhist concepts in some of his work.
In 1957, Kerouac’s experimental writing and controversial subject matter was considered by many to be outrageous and offensive. When it was published, On The Road received widely mixed reviews with some critics praising the author’s daring style and probing examination of American society and values. Others, however, would deride Kerouac’s effort as a meaningless series of vignettes filled with petty criminals and dope addicts. “Since most critics had never experienced anything like the Road, they denied its existence as art and proclaimed it a ‘Beat Generation’ tract of rebellion, then pilloried it as immoral,” explained biographer Dennis McNally.
Despite the mixed reviews, On The Road became a bestseller for weeks and Kerouac became a celebrity. It was a role he was never comfortable with, however, and following the publication and uproar over what would always be his most famous book, Kerouac had a difficult time dealing with the cult status of his work and his own popularity. On The Road became the bible of the Beat Generation, a term Kerouac had coined but later regretted when the press and public focused on the “Beat” image and lifestyle, but generally overlooked the mystical, poetic element of Kerouac’s and other Beat writers’ work.
In 1958 Kerouac published The Dharma Bums, a novel about his friend and Beat poet Gary Snyder. Success and celebrity, however, made it difficult for Kerouac to finish any other projects. He compiled a stack of unpublished manuscripts and only excerpts of his work were published over the next few years. In 1962, Kerouac was able to finish a new novel, Big Sur, which dealt with the negative effects of fame on his artistic and personal life. Throughout the 1960s, though, Kerouac retreated from public view. He died in 1969 from a stomach hemorrhage, a result of his chronic alcoholism.
Estimated Reading Time
On The Road is an entertaining, though complex, novel filled with colloquial dialogue and written in an unconventional style. The reader should be prepared to spend some time with this book. It is filled with unusual references and repeatedly uses slang terms popular in the 1940s and 1950s. The reading might be broken down into several sessions of two to three hours. Because of the novel’s length and its lack of a conventional plot or story, the reader should allow several days to finish the entire book.