Fifty Years of Kerouac's "On The Road"

Illustration for article titled Fifty Years of Kerouac's "On The Road"

Fourteen years before the United States mandated exit numbers on Dwight Eisenhower's brainchild of a road system, a Lowell, Mass native of French-Canadian extraction named Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac published a novel that would change countless lives; a mash note to an already-dead America living under the weight of what Igor Kurchatov and J. Robert Oppenheimer had wrought.

My mother marks my reading of On The Road when I was 18 as the precise moment when everything started to go wrong in my life. I prefer to say it's the book that turned me from a mid-day anonymous undersexed teen on a sugar crash into an unwitting writer. Without getting florid or farther into a navel-lint mining expedition than I already am — it's the piece that taught me where writing comes from. It was a manifestation of Gutenberg-wrought Awesome. Last week, Slate published an interesting installment of The Book Club by Walter Kirn and Meghan O'Rourke. O'Rourke had never read On The Road before; for Kirn the book stood as an absolute totem; a part of him. What's more, he reads it like an elegy for a time Kerouac already knew was past.


I tend to traffic in elegies. But to twist a hoary old cliché, life is what happens while you're mourning something else; excessive short shrift; the kisses you're half-assing while suckling at the teat of another memory of liplock that may not have been as wonderful as what's dripping down your chin at that very moment. But who's ever gotten rich betting on my prognostications besides my bosses? I've never been much good at predicting the new.

I figured nobody'd buy the Prius because the Insight was cooler and got better mileage. And that since the original Avalanche was bad, I assumed nobody'd go for a Cadillac version of such an already unappealing vehicle. After all, the Cimarron was an atmosphere-inhaling wound of a joke, right? I am, however, a little too good at mining time gone by. I blame teenage ownership of that Rites of Spring record for it. I may be in love with the future, but I have no clue how it'll pan out.

The new comes from relentless optimists with a fuck-you, can-do spirit. Guys like Kelly Johnson, René Panhard or Ferruccio Lamborghini. Visionaries like Soichiro Honda or John DeLorean. And while I'm a relentless proponent of the future, I want the goddamn future I was promised. I want my verdammt Soylent Green, and I want it now, you wobbly-arsed prognosticators of always-impending wonder! Kerouac was either smart enough to know (or too dumb to realize that there was another way) that — like a similar icon who died a quarter-century after him — his ticket out of the cult he'd created by crafting a genuinely sensitive and genre-defying work was simply to meet his end ASAP. Kerouac grew up inky-fingered in a print shop. He could've pressed the book himself and sold it to friends. Cobain could've continued releasing records on Sub Pop. Karl Benz could've built the Patent Motorwagen and stopped there.

Instead, they all took a shot at the big leagues — and for better or for worse — inspired their respective generations to all manner of endeavor. Lest we forget, DeLorean did the same thing (twice, in different ways) and met an ignominious end himself. Sure, the profiteers are ultimately the Warren Buffetts, Sumner Redstones and Rupert Murdochs of the world. (Although we have to give Johnny Z. some props for ripping off Mrs. Thatcher.) As Thomas Frank points out in his still-relevant 1994 essay "Why Johnny Can't Dissent," "The basic impulses of the countercultural idea, as descended from the holy Beats, are about as threatening to the new breed of antinomian businessmen as Anthony Robbins, selling success & how to achieve it on a late-night infomercial."


Frank makes an excellent point. But what can't be co-opted is the particular cultural flashpoint that something creates in any genre. Star Wars, the GT-40, the Cosworth DFV/DFX, the Hemi, Never Mind the Bollocks, the "I Have a Dream" speech. Colin Chapman. Don Garlits. The smart money banks on aping and repeating. The could-give-a-fuck money goes with its gut and often flames out spectacularly. More often than not, silently. But now and then, the paradigm simply eats shit and dies. Isn't that the moment that self-styled rebels live for? And wasn't this nation built on the thrill of rebellion?

Not long after Kerouac published On the Road, John Steinbeck took a road trip of his own. In Travels With Charley, Salinas' favorite son mourns the loss of the Monterey County that raised him. The people he lost it to come out every August to celebrate the period when they took it away from the likes of the original denizens of Carmel; folks Steinbeck initially characterizes as "starveling writers and unwanted painters" and goes on to extrapolate that "if Carmel's founders should return, they could not afford to live there, but it wouldn't go that far. They would be instantly picked up as suspicious characters and deported over the city line." The Monterey Peninsula has been picked clean of the early-century charm it once held for the children of pioneers. Once a year we all gather there to ogle the shining, patina-stained history that such wealth and provenance afforded a half-decade ago; a vintage coin whose face has been religiously buffed while its flipside remains firmly encrusted in blooming algae. The locals are powerless to anything about it but don a straw boater, hit the links, brave the stench and grin at their winnings.


Steinbeck went home to New York and died ten months before Kerouac did, having lived 20 years longer and published a more impressive and eminently readable body of work. SCRAMP built Laguna Seca, which coincidentally, also turned 50 this year. Typically, people bemoan every change made to the track. Just as people who first encountered the facility in its current state will bemoan any future changes. As poet Robinson Jeffers wrote: "You people with the cleverer hands, our supplanters/In the beautiful country; enjoy her a season, her beauty, and come down/And be supplanted; for you also are human."

But it's largely the point where one starts that defines nostalgia; that dictates what we believe needs to be changed. I can gander at the Napier-Railton Brooklands record car and walk away absolutely flabbergasted and dumbfounded. But ultimately, as astounding as it is, it's too heavy and old. Magnificent, yes. Perfect? Quite possibly. But it exists outside the aesthetic worldview that makes my peninsula dingle in that absolutely personal way. On the other hand, when I see a T-Bucket, a '70 Buick Skylark or a Ferrari 308; watch a video of Joe Strummer talking, hear a Stooges song on the jukebox or sense the death-has-arrived thump of a Hayabusa's idle through a wall, something wells up in me — a genuine happiness.


In a world where cars are increasingly designed by lawyers and the way we use them dictated by greedy developers and shady financial institutions; as we slouch toward a state of over-regulated perfection, we've lost something. In Kirn's view — and I agree — Kerouac essentially felt the same way. But he presented something new in mourning the time he spent both with Neal Cassady and without him. And fifty years on, we're still attempting to process the life and loss of a man who launched a million road trips. We bide our time waiting for the next great new thing to happen. As Strummer said to me nearly a decade ago, in that all-knowing umpteen-pack-a-day crackle he perfected before the age of twenty-five, "Punk's only followin' the Beats. And the Jazzers. And the Smokers. And anyone else who was centrally slamming on the main deal." It's happening somewhere right now. We just don't know it yet. But a half-century from now, some car; some great race; some book; some wonderful thing from today will stand; an epochal green-and-white milemarker of an age. And life will be all the more interesting for it.


"Fast as a Shark" is an electronic broadside aimed at what has been historically right and terribly wrong with the automotive industry and culture. Udo Dirkschneider likely has little time for the Beats.

Share This Story

Get our newsletter


Oh yeah that book was an influence! As a high-schooler, I was always referred to as "Driver Neal" by my hippie stoner friends, who by dint of being hippies, had also read it. Because road trips always involved everyone getting quite stoned, me much less so, and me insisting on driving whichever vehicle was provided. And I did with maximum speed and hoonage, as screams of terror evolved into screams of cautious amusement (and perhaps resignation). This of course happened whether it was the 1972 Malibu, the 1985 Toyota Van-Wagon, or — OH HELL YEAH — my buddy's father's Saab 9000 turbo.

The open road, the freedom of youth, a cassette deck, and a few ziplocs full of contraband — can't beat it.