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.
Jack Kerouac grew up during a turbulent era in the United States. The 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s were a time of enormous economic, political, and social change in America and around the world. Kerouac came from a modest, blue-collar background and his family suffered, along with everyone in Lowell, from the Depression in the 1930s. A war was being fought in Europe and there was concern and excitement throughout the United States as Americans wondered what role they would play in the conflict. The grim reality of the war, with millions of lives lost, would shock the world and have a profound effect on the consciousness of the nation.
Emerging from the Depression and World War II, the economy of the United States was stronger than ever and it triggered a decade of unprecedented growth, prosperity, and employment in the nation. A prolonged period of industrial development ensured a plentiful supply of intriguing new products that Americans were eager to purchase. Appliances and fast automobiles were especially popular in a country caught up in a craze of consumerism. New roads were being built, gasoline was inexpensive, and travel throughout the United States was becoming easy, fun, and affordable. In addition to travel, the automobile provided access to housing alternatives for urban dwellers tired of living in crowded cities. The suburbs grew rapidly as affordable homes in new, quieter communities were built at an astonishing pace.
While the nation enjoyed the benefits of a robust economy, the sobering threat of the atomic bomb and nuclear war presented Americans with a new reality. Mass annihilation, an unimaginable prospect a few years earlier, became a frightening possibility that people around the world would have to live with after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August of 1945. When the Soviet Union developed a nuclear capability, the Cold War between the United States and the Soviets heightened tensions. The country was also engaged in the Korean War, and fear of Communist expansion created a repressive atmosphere in the United States. The Army-McCarthy Hearings, spearheaded by right-wing Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1954, became a forum for a radical anti-communist element in Congress where many politicians, entertainers, artists, and intellectuals were accused of treason and subversion. Relations between black and white Americans were also changing as African-Americans began to demand the basic rights, such as the freedom to vote and equal education, they had been denied for years.
In the midst of this abundance, and political and social upheaval, the Beat Generation was born. When On The Road was published it was seen by many to be a protest against America’s complacent postwar prosperity and, therefore, a challenge to the nation itself. However, writing for Commonweal in 1959, Seymour Krim noted that Kerouac “has the courage to put down the unaccustomed rhythm and details of the frantic modern scene exactly the way he’s lived it.“ Other reviews celebrated the existential quality of the book and its unique social and moral commentary.
Many of the critical attacks aimed at Kerouac’s writing were in reaction to a perceived affront to the American way of life. But On The Road, and the entire Beat movement, captured the attention of a restless generation dissatisfied with the materialistic values and rigid moral and political climate of America in the 1950s.
A decade later hippie culture would expand on the Beats’ interest in self-exploration and embrace of personal freedom. Kerouac’s rebellious writings and inventive style have remained popular for decades. His work has had a significant and enduring influence on American literature and culture.
Master List of Characters
Sal Paradise—the narrator of the story; Sal is a writer and college student who goes to school in New York City.
Dean Moriarty—Sal’s great friend and traveling companion.
Sal’s Aunt—an older woman who owns the house where Sal lives in New Jersey.
Marylou—Dean Moriarty’s girlfriend, wife, and frequent traveling companion.
Chad King—Sal’s friend in New York.
Carlo Marx—a poet, and another friend of Sal’s in New York.
Ed Dunkel—a friend of Sal’s and Dean’s.
Elmer Hassel—a friend of Sal’s and a drug dealer in New York whom we hear about but never meet.
Truck Driver—a trucker who gives Sal a ride in the Midwest.
Eddie—a young hitchhiker from New York who meets Sal on the road.
The Cowboy—a man who gives Sal and Eddie a ride in Nebraska.
Carnival Owner—a man who offers Sal and Eddie jobs in a carnival.
Farmer—a good old boy whom Sal observes at a truck stop in Iowa.
Montana Slim—a shady character Sal meets while riding on the back of a truck.
Mississippi Gene—a quiet hobo Sal meets on the truck.
Mexican Waitress—a young woman Sal asks out for a date in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
Mr. King—Chad King’s father who is a frustrated inventor.
Roland Major—Sal’s pretentious roommate in Denver.
Camille—one of Dean Moriarty’s girlfriends; later his wife.
Tim Gray—a friend of Sal’s in Denver.
Ray Rawlins—another friend of Sal’s in Denver.
Babe Rawlins—Ray’s beautiful blond sister.
Remi Boncoeur—Sal’s friend, a merchant seaman and special policeman working in San Francisco.
Lee Ann—Remi Boncoeur’s girlfriend.
Old Cop—a cranky, ex-Alcatraz guard who works at the Barracks with Sal.
Sledge—an angry, brutal cop at the Barracks.
Blond boy—a young man who gives Sal a ride in California.
Trailer Salesman—a man who gives Sal a ride in California.
Terry—a young Mexican woman Sal meets on a bus and later lives with in Sabinal.
The Ghost—a mad hobo Sal meets in Pennsylvania.
Skinny Salesman—a man who picks up Sal in Harrisburg and gives him a ride to Times Square.
Tom Saybrook—a friend of Sal’s in New York who holds a New Year’s Eve party.
Lucille—Sal’s girlfriend in New York.
Damion—Sal’s friend and the ”hero” of his New York group.
Rollo Greb—a friend of Sal’s who lives on Long Island.
Hyman Solomon—a hobo Dean picks up on the way to Louisiana.
Old Bull Lee—a friend of Sal’s, and a morphine addict, who lives in New Orleans.
Jane Lee—Old Bull’s wife.
Galatea—Ed Dunkel’s wife.
Alfred—a young, crippled hitchhiker Sal and Dean meet on the way to California.
Hal Hingham—Sal’s friend in Tucson who loans him gas money.
Okie Country Singer—a hitchhiker from Bakersfield who rides with Sal, Dean, and Marylou to California.
Slim Gaillard—a jazz musician Sal and Dean meet in San Francisco.
Roy Johnson—a friend of Sal’s from Denver who lives in San Francisco.
Dorothy—Roy’s wife who disapproves of Sal and Dean.
Marie—a friend of Sal’s who lives in San Francisco with her little daughter.
Tenorman—a jazz musician Sal and Dean meet at a club.
Ed Fournier—a jazz musician Sal talks to in San Francisco.
Walter—a man Sal and Dean meet at a bar in San Francisco.
Walter’s wife—a sweet-tempered woman who is married to Walter.
“The Fag”—a gay man who drives Sal and Dean to Denver.
Sam Brady—Dean’s cousin in Denver.
Frankie—an Okie woman Sal meets and later stays with in Denver.
Janet—Frankie’s thirteen year-old daughter.
Shotgun woman—a neighbor of Frankie’s.
College boys—Sal and Dean’s passengers in the limousine.
Ed Wall—an old friend of Dean’s who lives on a ranch in Sterling, Colorado.
Hoboes—two men Dean picks up in the Cadillac and drives to Chicago.
Country girl—a young woman Sal meets on a bus to Detroit.
Inez—a woman Dean meets at a party in New York.
Henry Glass—a young man, just released from prison, whom Sal meets on a bus.
Stan Shephard—a friend of Tim Gray’s who lives in Denver.
Charity—Babe Rawlins’s elderly aunt in Denver.
Stan’s grandfather—a sad old man who doesn’t want Stan to go to Mexico with Sal and Dean.
Victor—a young Mexican man Sal, Dean, and Stan meet in Gregoria.
Venezuela—a young girl who works as a prostitute in Gregoria.
Young Indian Girl—a shy girl Sal, Dean, and Stan encounter along a jungle road in Mexico.
Laura—a woman Sal falls in love with in New York.
Old Man—a man with flowing white hair Sal sees On The Road.
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.
Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
Jack Kerouac spontaneously wrote the unedited bulk of On the Road on a 120-foot roll of teletype paper in 1951. There is some disagreement about how much editing was required of him before it was finally accepted for publication, by which time he considered the novel somewhat passé. His Visions of Cody (1972) treats approximately the same period as is covered in On the Road from a variant and more positive perspective while delving into the narrator’s chronic identity split. On the Road became the bible of the Beat generation and Kerouac’s most famous work, a vital contribution to his life story as told in his Legend of Duluoz novels.
On the Road’s cross-continental journeys are based on Kerouac’s trips, mostly by car and bus and often accompanied by his friend Neal Cassady, the frenetic, charismatic, independent scholar from the West. Cassady’s name in the novel is Dean Moriarty. The novel begins with Dean and Sal Paradise (Kerouac) meeting in New York City and progresses through four mostly fast-paced trips, back and forth between New York and California, up and down the Eastern Seaboard, along the Gulf Coast, and down into Mexico, with notable stopovers in Denver and New Orleans, the latter to visit Old Bull Lee (William S. Burroughs). The open road, poverty, drugs, alcohol, jazz, hunger, sex, speed, and characters met along the way create intense situations that allow the travelers to observe,...
(The entire section is 482 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Sal Paradise is living at his aunt’s house in New Jersey while working on his first novel. His “life on the road” begins when he reads letters written from reform school by Dean Moriarity. When Dean arrives in New York with his new wife, Marylou, Sal is impressed with the younger man’s enthusiasm and flattered by Dean’s desire to learn to write. He recognizes that Dean is a con man who is probably conning him as well, but he enjoys his company. Sal is sorry when Dean meets Carlo Marx, a poet with a “dark mind,” for he cannot keep up with Dean and Carlo’s wild energy.
Sal leaves New York in the spring of 1947, planning to hitchhike to Denver and continue to San Francisco, where his friend, Remi Boncoeur, has promised to get him a job on a ship. Sal spends most of his money taking a bus to Chicago. From there, he hitchhikes to Denver and finds Carlo and Dean. Dean wants to divorce Marylou and plans to marry Camille, a young woman he had just met; meanwhile, he is having relations with each of the women in separate hotel rooms. Sal observes as Carlo’s and Dean’s intellectual pursuits dissolve into drunken parties in town and in the mountains. Depressed, he wires his aunt for money and takes a bus to San Francisco.
The seafaring job falls through, but Remi lets Sal move into the shack he shares with his girlfriend, Lee Ann. Sal attempts to write a screenplay for Remi to sell in Hollywood; meanwhile, Remi gets Sal a job as a...
(The entire section is 1142 words.)
Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Because On the Road was published near the end of the 1950’s, when the conformism of the Eisenhower era was at its most numbing, the book has generally been regarded as a forecast of the counterculture explosion of the next decade. While it certainly contributed to the developing sensibility of the generation that came of age in the 1960’s, the book actually belongs to an earlier era in American life. Critics have pointed out how much Kerouac’s sense of America is derived from the Transcendentalists of the previous century—writers such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Nathaniel Hawthorne, who shaped and shared the literary heritage of New England, Kerouac’s home ground—and how Kerouac appropriated nineteenth century American poet Walt Whitman’s signature image of the open road as a symbol and source of possibility and self-discovery.
In addition to those distinguished ancestors, however, Kerouac’s work is closely related to two contemporaries and to another powerful artist from the nineteenth century. Sal Paradise, the narrative consciousness of On the Road, shares a number of significant attributes with Holden Caulfield, the somewhat younger but equally sensitive and artistic consciousness of J. D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, published in 1951. That was the year that Kerouac composed the original draft of On the Road, which is set in the late 1940’s, the same era as The...
(The entire section is 1249 words.)
Chapter Summary and Analysis
Part One, Chapters 1–2: Summary and Analysis
Sal Paradise: the narrator of the story
Dean Moriarty: a young man who travels to New York from New Mexico and later becomes Sal’s great friend
Chad King: Sal’s friend in New York
Carlo Marx: another New York friend of Sal’s
Marylou: Dean Moriarty’s girlfriend
Elmer Hassel: a friend of Sal’s and a drug dealer
Sal’s Aunt: owner of the house where Sal lives in New Jersey
Remi Boncoeur: Sal’s friend, a merchant seaman in San Francisco
Roy Johnson: a friend of Sal’s from Denver who lives in San Francisco
In 1947, Sal Paradise, a recently divorced student and writer living in New Jersey with his aunt, goes to college in New York City. He is weary, alone, feeling that “everything is dead.” He tells us about the first time he met Dean Moriarty and the effect it had on him.
Sal had heard exciting tales about Dean through their mutual friend, Chad King. While in a reformatory in New Mexico, Dean had written several letters to Chad saying that he planned to come to New York. Now Sal is excited at the idea of meeting Dean.
Dean arrives in New York City with his girlfriend, Marylou. He tells Sal and his friends that he wants to learn how to write and he hopes they will help him. Sal immediately likes Dean, although he describes him as a “holy con man.”
Dean gets a...
(The entire section is 795 words.)
Part One, Chapters 3-5: Summary and Analysis
Truck Driver: a trucker who gives Sal a ride
Eddie: a young hitchhiker from New York
The Cowboy: a man who gives Sal and Eddie a ride
Carnival Owner: a man who offers Sal and Eddie a job
Farmer: a raucous man at local truck stop
Montana Slim: a shady character Sal meets while riding on the back of a truck
Mississippi Gene: a quiet hobo Sal meets on the truck
Mexican Waitress: a young woman Sal asks out for a date
Sal makes it to Chicago by bus and spends a few days wandering around the city and visiting local jazz clubs. But soon he’s ready to leave again. He hitchhikes west and meets a wild trucker who gives him a ride into Iowa. After a few more rides, Sal makes it to Des Moines where he rents a cheap motel room and eats apple pie and ice cream for dinner.
Sal wakes up in Des Moines feeling a bit lost and disoriented. He starts hitchhiking again and meets Eddie, another hitchhiker from New York, who is also heading west. They try hitching together for awhile, but have no luck getting a ride. Finally, they meet a cowboy who tells them that he’s traveling to meet his wife. The cowboy has two cars and wants Sal or Eddie to drive one for him. Sal and Eddie jump at the chance. Sal rides with the cowboy while Eddie drives the other car, speeding along at ninety miles an hour.
They arrive in Nebraska...
(The entire section is 953 words.)
Part One, Chapters 6-8: Summary and Analysis
Mr. King: Chad King’s father
Roland Major: Sal’s roommate in Denver
Camille: one of Dean Moriarty’s girlfriends
Ray Rawlins: another friend of Sal’s in Denver
Rita Bettencourt: a waitress and friend of Dean’s
Mary Bettencourt: Rita’s sister
Tim Gray: a friend of Sal’s in Denver
Sal immediately looks up his friend Chad King who is working at a museum, and studying anthropology and American Indians. Sal learns that Chad is no longer friends with Dean Moriarty or Carlo Marx. A rift has developed between these two and Sal’s other friends. Sal is curious to see how things will develop between the two factions. Sal then describes Dean’s childhood. His mother died when Dean was very young, and his father was an alcoholic. Dean led a youthful life of crime and was allowed to run wild in the streets of Denver. Dean was brought up on Larimer Street, the Bowery of Denver, and would beg for money and give it to his father to buy wine. When he was older, Sal says Dean “set a record for stealing cars” and ended up in the reformatory.
Sal stays in Chad’s family’s house for a few nights. Chad’s father is an interesting, elderly man who grew up on the North Dakota plains, living a classic Western lifestyle. He worked as a school teacher, businessman, and inventor. Sal discovers one of Mr. King’s inventions: a...
(The entire section is 1031 words.)
Part One, Chapters 9-10: Summary and Analysis
Babe Rawlins: Ray’s beautiful blond sister
Sal and his friends, minus Dean and Carlo, drive to Central City, an old mining town west of Denver. In its heyday, Central City was a rich silver mining area, but now it’s just a tourist trap. One outstanding feature of the town is the beautiful old Opera House. Every year, Central City hosts a well-known opera company that performs in the old theater.
Sal and his friends plan to host a party in the town, although they have nowhere to stay. Babe Rawlins, Ray’s sister, knows of an old miner’s shack they can use if they clean it up. Everyone gets to work, scrubbing and dusting the old shack, while Sal and Babe head off to the opera.
After the opera, Sal, Babe, and a big crowd return to the shack for the party. It turns into such a loud, boisterous scene that Sal and his friends decide to leave and tour the local bar scene. The narrow streets of the town are jammed, and the bars are filled with people from the opera. Ray Rawlins gets into a fight. They all stagger drunkenly around town, and finally go to sleep. The next day, after they return to Denver, Sal starts to think it might be time to leave Colorado and head for San Francisco.
Back in Denver, Sal continues to feel frustrated about his love life. Dean decides to help him out and sets him up with the waitress, Rita Bettencourt. Sal and Rita make love in Sal’s...
(The entire section is 631 words.)
Part One, Chapters 11-12: Summary and Analysis
Lee Ann: Remi Boncoeur’s girlfriend
Old Cop: a cranky, ex-Alcatraz guard who works at the Barracks with Sal
Sledge: an angry, brutal cop at the Barracks
Terry: a young Mexican woman Sal meets on a bus
Blond boy: a young man who gives Sal a ride
Trailer Salesman: a man who gives Sal a ride
Sal travels by bus to San Francisco, enjoying the scenery of the West. When he arrives in the city, he looks up his friend Remi Boncoeur, who is living in a shack in Mill City. Sal recalls meeting Remi in prep school, and tells us that while they were in college, Remi introduced him to a woman Sal married and later divorced.
Remi is living in a rundown part of town near an old barracks. Sal climbs in through the window of Remi’s shack, and finds his friend asleep, in bed with his girlfriend, Lee Ann. Remi has a loud, infectious laugh and he is delighted to see Sal. However, Lee Ann is not pleased. Sal discovers that Remi and Lee Ann fight all the time during the week, then they go out on the weekend and spend all their money. Sal settles into the shack and tries to write, although he doesn’t have much success.
Eventually, Remi gets Sal a job as a special policeman at the barracks where he works. The barracks house transient construction workers who are waiting to ship out to jobs overseas. Sal’s job is to act as a guard and keep...
(The entire section is 1170 words.)
Part One, Chapters 13-14: Summary and Analysis
Ricky: Terry’s brother
Ponzo: Ricky’s friend
The Ghost: a mad hobo Sal meets in Pennsylvania
Skinny Salesman: he gives Sal a ride to Times Square
After a few days, Sal and Terry have had enough of L.A. They can’t find jobs and they are overwhelmed by the wild, crowded city streets, teeming with tourists and eccentric characters. Sal calls the city “a jungle.” Sal and Terry decide to go to New York together. Terry visits her sister while Sal waits outside. He can hear the two women arguing, and Terry quickly leaves the house. They move out of their hotel room and are back on the road again.
To save money, Sal decides they should hitchhike to New York, but nobody picks them up. They make it to Bakersfield and try, without success, to find jobs picking grapes. They hitch to Sabinal, Terry’s hometown, and meet her brother Ricky. Ricky and his friend, Ponzo, drive them around all day, and eventually everyone gets drunk. Terry goes home and picks up her young son, Johnny, and they all drive to Fresno. Sal is amused by his new friends’ relaxed philosophy; they tell him that whatever needs to be done will be taken care of “manana.”
Sal gets a job picking cotton in a field near Sabinal and he and Terry move into a tent. The work is difficult, but Sal enjoys it. “I thought I had found my life’s work,” he explains. But he can only...
(The entire section is 1052 words.)
Part Two, Chapters 1-3: Summary and Analysis
Galated: Ed Dunkel’s wife
A year has passed and Sal is back in school on the GI Bill. For Christmas, Sal and his aunt go to Testament, Virginia to visit Sal’s brother, Rocky. One day, while Sal is visiting with his Southern relatives, Dean shows up with Marylou and Ed Dunkel, driving a brand new car. Sal hasn’t seen Dean for over a year.
Dean immediately creates chaos in the house, leaving Sal’s relatives completely bewildered. Dean drives Sal and the others downtown to the heart of the little city. Dean explains that he had been working on the railroad in San Francisco, earning $400 a week, but he spent it all buying his new car. Now the car is wrecked from Dean’s speeding across the country.
When he left San Francisco, Dean brought Ed Dunkel and Ed’s wife, Galatea, with him. Galatea never stopped complaining, though, so they left her behind in Tucson and drove north to pick up Marylou in Denver. Dean tells Sal that Marylou is the only woman he ever really loved.
Dean races around Testament, creating a scene, and commenting on everything he sees. Finally, they all decide to drive to New York together. Sal realizes he has the “bug” to get on the road again.
They drive back to New York with a load of Rocky’s furniture piled in the back seat. Dean speeds the entire trip, vowing to make it to New York and back, to pick up another load of furniture, in...
(The entire section is 976 words.)
Part Two, Chapters 4-6: Summary and Analysis
Tom Saybrook: a friend of Sal’s
Lucille: Sal’s girlfriend in New York
Damion: Sal’s friend; the ”hero” of his New York group
Rollo Greb: a friend of Sal’s who lives on Long Island
Hyman Solomon: a hobo
Old Bull Lee: Sal and Dean’s friend in New Orleans
Jane Lee: Old Bull’s wife
On New Year’s Eve, Sal and Dean sleep all day at Sal’s aunt’s house. When they wake up, Ed tells them about his last New Year’s Eve, which he spent alone, having visions of his dead mother. However this year they’re all going to a party in New York, so they head off for Manhattan. As they drive through the Lincoln Tunnel, Sal recalls a dream he had about an Arabian figure chasing him across a desert. He interprets the dream to mean that death is pursuing all of us and will catch us before we reach heaven.
The group arrives at Tom Saybrook’s apartment for a party. Lucille meets Sal there, and Sal introduces her to his friends. Lucille is immediately wary of Dean, Ed, and Marylou, sensing, according to Sal, “the madness they put in me.” Sal quickly realizes that his relationship with Lucille is coming to an end. Marylou makes a pass at Sal, and Lucille gets very jealous. Sal’s friend, Damion, arrives. Sal describes him as the Dean of his New York friends, but Damion and Dean immediately dislike each other. They all go...
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Part Two, Chapters 7-9: Summary and Analysis
Alfred: a young, crippled hitchhiker
Hal Hingham: Sal’s friend in Tucson who loans him money
Okie Country Singer: a hitchhiker from Bakersfield
Sal wakes up to find Bull and Dean pulling nails from an old and rotten piece of wood. Bull wants to use the nails to build a shelf that will last forever. Bull is a great believer in building solid things. He shows off a table he built, a part of fence, and an “orgone accumulator” which is a device designed to collect orgones from the atmosphere. Sal notes that Bull is at his best in the morning, before fatigue and the effects of his drug use cause him to retire to his chair in the corner.
Sal and Bull go to the horse races in the afternoon. Sal tells Bull that the horse named “Big Pop” reminds him of his father. When Big Pop wins the race, Bull believes Sal must have had a vision.
When they return to Bull’s house, Dean is playing basketball. He demonstrates his athletic prowess, shooting the ball, running, and jumping. Sal is amazed at how good Dean is at sports. When Dean and Sal have a race, Dean wins easily.
They all go downtown and Dean shows them around the local train yard, explaining the job he had in San Francisco. Then Dean demonstrates the proper technique for jumping on and off a moving freight car. After exploring the town for awhile, Dean, Sal, and Marylou decide to leave for...
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Part Three: Chapters 6 – 8: Summary and Analysis
Slim Gaillard: a jazz musician
In San Francisco, stranded without money, Sal and Marylou scrounge around for food and a place to live. Marylou knows the manager of a cheap hotel where they rent a room on credit. At first Sal is excited at the prospect of spending time alone with Marylou, but he soon realizes that she has no real interest in him. She only uses him to make Dean jealous.
After living together for a few days, Marylou deserts Sal one night and goes off with a nightclub owner. She sees Sal standing in a doorway across the street, but doesn’t even acknowledge him. Sal wanders around San Francisco, delirious from hunger. He reaches a state where he experiences ”ecstasy . . . the complete step across chronological time into timeless shadows, and wonderment in the bleakness of the mortal realm.” He thinks he is going to die, but he keeps on walking. He makes it back to the hotel room, where the delicious smells of the city’s many wonderful restaurants drive him crazy with hunger.
Dean finally arrives and rescues Sal from the hotel room. They move in with Camille, and Dean gets a “ridiculous” job as a pressure cooker salesman. He is enthusiastic about it at first, practicing his pitch for hours, but he soon loses interest and never goes to work.
Sal and Dean explore San Francisco together. They go to see a jazz musician named Slim Gaillard, and Dean is...
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Part Three: Chapters 1 – 3: Summary and Analysis
Roy Johnson: a friend from Denver who lives in San Francisco.
Dorothy: Roy’s wife
Marie: a friend who lives in San Francisco with her little daughter
In 1949, Sal travels to Denver again. He gets a job at the fruit market, where he works long, exhausting hours. At night, he walks the streets of Denver’s lively black and Mexican neighborhoods, wishing he were anything but a disillusioned “white man.”
Sal becomes involved with a wealthy young woman. She gives him a hundred dollars for travel money because she realizes he’s not happy. Sal leaves for San Francisco again, and at the Colorado/Utah border, Sal tells us he saw God in the sky “in the form of huge gold sunburning clouds over the desert.”
Sal arrives in San Francisco and knocks on Dean’s door at two o’clock in the morning. Dean is living with Camille in a cozy little house, but they are having a difficult time. Camille is expecting their second baby; she doesn’t want Dean to go out carousing anymore, and she cries when Sal shows up.
Dean tells Sal that for months he was obsessed with Marylou and would follow her around San Francisco, spying on her when she was sleeping with other men. Finally, he brought her a gun and asked her to kill him, but she refused. At one point, while they were arguing, Dean tried to punch her, but his fist glanced off her head and he broke his...
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Part Three: Chapters 4 – 5: Summary and Analysis
Tenorman: a jazz musician Sal and Dean meet at a club
Ed Fournier: another jazz musician
Walter: a man Sal and Dean meet at a bar
Walter’s wife: a sweet-tempered woman, married to Walter
“The Fag”: a gay man who drives Sal and Dean to Denver
To start off their two days of “kicks,” Sal, Dean, Galatea, and Marie go to a jazz club where they listen to a passionate performance by a “tenorman” who plays to a wild, screaming audience. After his set, Sal and Dean talk to the tenorman. Dean tells him he just wants to have a ball; the tenorman says that “life’s too sad to be ballin all the time.”
They all speed across town to Jameson’s Nook, another jazz joint, in the tenorman’s big Cadillac. At the club they see a horn player who reminds them of a black Carlo Marx. Sal has a conversation with Ed Fournier, a San Francisco alto man, while Dean calls Roy Johnson to arrange for a ride. Roy drives them to another bar where Sal and Dean meet a man named Walter, who invites them home for a beer. They arrive at Walter’s house to find his wife in bed, already asleep, but Walter must climb over the bed to unscrew a light bulb to use in the kitchen. Sal and Dean are impressed when the wife just smiles at them all and doesn’t complain. Dean later tells Sal that all women should be so easy.
They leave Walter’s house in the...
(The entire section is 928 words.)
Part Three, Chapters 6-8: Summary and Analysis
Sam Brady: Sal’s cousin in Denver
Janett: Frankie’s thirteen year-old daughter
Shotgun woman: a neighbor of Frankie’s
College boys: Sal and Dean’s passengers in the travel-bureau limousine
Ed Wall: an old friend of Dean’s who lives on a ranch in Sterling, Colorado
Sitting in a restaurant in downtown Denver, Sal and Dean get into a nasty argument because Sal thinks Dean is making fun of him for being five years older than Dean. Dean leaves, very upset, and Sal feels guilty for yelling at him. When Dean comes back in, he tells Sal he was crying.
In Denver they stay with an Okie woman named Frankie and her children. Sal had met her in Denver when he was there two weeks earlier. Dean goes with Frankie to help her buy a car; he urges her to grab a car he thinks is a good deal, but she can’t make up her mind and he gets angry.
While in Denver this time, Dean is determined to find his father. He asks around for him, but no one knows where he is, or if he’s even in Denver anymore. Dean sets up a meeting with his cousin, Sam Brady. When Dean was younger, Sam had been his hero. They meet Sam in a bar and Dean realizes that Sam has changed. Now he won’t even take a drink. He tells Dean that the family wants nothing more to do with Dean or his father. They drive around, chatting for a while, then Sam drops Sal and Dean off at a...
(The entire section is 1294 words.)
Part Three, Chapters 9-11: Summary and Analysis
Hoboes: two men Dean picks up in the Cadillac
Country girl: a young woman Sal meets on a bus
Inez: a woman Dean meets at a party
Sal, Dean and the college boys leave Ed Wall’s ranch and speed across Nebraska at night. Dean has never been to Chicago, and he’s excited to get there. Sal, thinking about Dean’s crazy antics, tells us that “it was remarkable how Dean could go mad and then suddenly continue with his soul—which I think is wrapped up in a fast car, a coast to reach, and woman at the end of the road.”
As they drive through the night, Dean recalls some adventures he had going through Nebraska and Indiana to see an auto race and a ball game. He talks about the time he escaped from an Arizona jail, moved to L.A., and changed his name. He remembers the first time he met Marylou, when she was only fifteen, in Denver.
Driving through Iowa, Dean speeds past a fast-looking car. The driver challenges them, racing ahead of the limo. Dean catches up and they pass each other, back and forth, until the other driver finally pulls off at a gas station and waves goodbye. Dean keeps speeding down the highway, and Sal gets so nervous he can’t watch anymore. He’s certain they’ll get in an accident. Sal curls up on the floor in the back of the limousine. He closes his eyes, imagining the road flying by, only inches away from his head.
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Part Four, Chapters 1-3: Summary and Analysis
Henry Glass: a young man just released from prison
Stan Shephard: a friend of Tim Gray’s who lives in Denver
Charity: Babe Rawlins’s aunt
Stan’s grandfather: a sad old man who doesn’t want Stan to leave with Sal and Dean
With the arrival of spring, Sal is ready to leave New York again. Dean is working as a parking lot attendant in Manhattan and living with Inez in the east eighties in a cold-water flat. Inez and Camille have been having long talks on the telephone about Dean and have become friendly. Dean sends Camille money every month for child-support.
Late one night Sal and Dean discuss their lives and futures. Dean thinks it doesn’t matter if they both end up as bums; they’re living their lives the best they can, they’re not interfering with anyone, and they are always ready to move on at a moment’s notice. Dean says he’s ready to roll with whatever happens. “I’ve decided to leave everything out of my hands,” he says. However, Dean has learned that his father is in jail in Seattle, and he considers moving his father to New York once he is released.
Before Sal leaves, Dean visits him at his aunt’s house in Long Island. They watch a few baseball games on TV, then go out to a school yard and play a frantic game of basketball with some local kids. They return to the house and Sal’s aunt cooks them a big supper. She...
(The entire section is 1163 words.)
Part Four, Chapters 4-6: Summary and Analysis
Victor: a young Mexican who lives in Gregoria
Venezuela: a Mexican girl who works as a prostitute in Gregoria
Three miles outside of Denver, Stan is bitten on the arm by a mysterious bug. His arm swells considerably, and Sal regards this as an ominous sign. They drive out of Colorado, through New Mexico, and into Texas. Dean urges them all to tell their life stories. Stan goes first, describing his European travels as they continue south through hot, dusty Texas.
In San Antonio, while Stan goes to a hospital to have his infected arm treated, Sal and Dean roam around the Mexican part of town. They stop in a pool hall to watch a young, crippled Mexican play pool. After a few hours, they pick up Stan and move on, traveling to seedy Laredo where they finally cross into Mexico in the early morning.
Once they cross the border, Sal, Dean, and Stan change most of their dollars into pesos. Sal and Dean are thrilled to be in a foreign country, and they’re delighted with the strange Mexican desert landscape. They keep heading south, driving through Sabinas Hidalgo, a crowded, peaceful little town with muddy streets and sleepy burros. Dean enjoys watching everyone in town going about their business. They continue on, passing through Monterrey, an industrial city built on a high plateau in the mountains, and head towards Mexico City.
Outside Monterrey the road takes...
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Part Four/Five, Chapter Six & Conclusion: Summary and Analysis
Young Indian Girl: a shy girl Sal, Dean, and Stan encounter along a jungle road
Laura: a woman Sal falls in love with in New York
Old Man: a man with flowing white hair Sal sees on a road
Outside Gregoria, Dean’s headlights don’t work, and they are forced to drive in the dark on a jungle road. Outside the car, they can hear millions of screaming insects. Their headlights come back on as they pull into Limon, a small town in the jungle. They pull over on the outskirts of town; they’re so exhausted they all have to sleep, but it’s too hot and there are too many insects.
Dean curls up on the dirt road; Stan sleeps in the car; and Sal stretches out on the roof of the car, hoping the metal will cool his skin. Sal realizes that his body is covered with bugs. He tells us “the jungle takes you over and you become it.” A policeman, making his rounds, stops by the car. He sees the three men trying to sleep and doesn’t bother them. Sal wonders why American policemen aren’t as nice. He tries to sleep again, but he can taste the heavy air, describing it as “the living emanation of trees and swamp.” A white horse trots down the road and passes Dean, who is sleeping in the dirt.
They move on at dawn, desperate to escape the muggy heat. When they stop for gas, a swarm of huge bugs flies all around them. Sal is horrified and hides in the car, but Stan and...
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