Tonight a friend from work and I went to see “On The Road”, based on the Jack Kerouac novel. It’s a book that defined the beat generation in the late Forties into the early Fifties. Young people were exploring, questioning, not only themselves and their existence, but American society. Sex, drugs, rock’n’roll, poetry, sexual awakenings and experimentation. The culture we romanticize was different back then. There was no e-mail, no cellphones, no GPS. You worked odd jobs, you up and left. You travelled.
It’s a semi-autobiographical novel. Keroac is the protagonist, Sal Paradise - a writer, an observer. His friend Neal Cassady is Dean Moriarty - the free-spirited, “tremendously excited with life” friend who sets the urge for travel and the story in motion. Carlo is Allen Ginsberg, the poet who wrote “Howl” and was a creative genius (he describes the creative process as having found IT, when the clock stops and the world ceases to move except around that moment).
Dean cares for no one but himself and the freedom of the road. Sal is drawn to Dean’s nature, seeing how alive it makes him feel. He doesn’t focus on the fact that Dean has been married, got one women pregnant, and goes back and forth between each relationship. For Sal, it is the romance of being, of traveling, that is the ultimate draw. From New Jersey to Denver, to Los Angeles to San Francisco; to Louisiana and back to New York, Sal and Dean’s adventures lead to all sorts of experiences. Dean is free not just in his view of the world but also his views on sexuality. Everything is a means to an end for Dean - the person who claims to love Sal (and treats him as a brother), but can he really love anybody but himself?
The selfishness goes ignored by Sal until he is personally affected by it. During a trip to Mexico, Sal comes down with dysentery, only to find that Dean is going to leave him there - claiming he has to get back to his life. It is in that moment that Sal recognizes he has more to live for than to be constantly moving.
A year later, he runs into Dean while on the way to a concert. Sal has matured, Dean looks worse for wear. They regard each other, as Dean asks for a lift but Sal declines and says goodbye. Dean yells that he loves Sal as ever, but Sal can only watch his friend disappear into the darkness as they drive away. It was probably one of the hardest things Sal ever had to do - and Kerouac by extension.
The novel Sal has been trying to write with no avail finally sparks something when he goes through his notebooks, and begins to write about his journeys with Dean. I think of Dean Moriarty, the last few lines of the book reads…
Sal Paradise is the metaphorical face of the Beat Generation, some would say. Unlike Holden Caulfield in “Catcher in the Rye”, Saul is trying to blaze through adolescence and maturity for sake of understanding. Dean is the eternal child; not bound by any means and always on the move. The struggle is how to balance the two. And is that ever possible?
Kerouac wrote “On The Road” on what some refer to as, “the scroll”: a continuous, one-hundred and twenty foot roll of tracing paper that he had taped together. It was single-spaced, without margins or paragraph breaks. That’s incredible, and perhaps the biggest draw for me as a writer and moviegoer. I wish I had Sal/Kerouac’s commitment to the written word. What I would give to have a typewriter, a bottle of whisky and some cigarettes and just do battle with the page every day. None of this menial, soul-sucking drivel one calls “work”. One of my resolutions is to write more, and try to every day. I write to you on this blog more than anything. And that’s not a bad thing. Clearly I have the desire but it has been dampened by my experience. My light has been tempered. And how do I recover?
And then I think of my relationship with Eric. How he is clearly Dean to my Sal. The fact that he wants to drive across country and sleep in the bed of his truck is testament. I wish I could do that with him. I wish I had the opportunity. There are people that have so much light and life in them that they burn, burn, burn and engulf you in possibility. A friend of mine said recently that I have become a whiner - one who revolts and laments about his position in life without doing anything to better it. I counter with, well I’m all alone here and I have no one to bring out the best in me. Is that an excuse? Partly. But it’s also true. I don’t want to atrophy. I don’t really want to fail. But it’s what I see on the horizon and I’ve never been good at lifting myself up.
I know to an extent I romanticize Eric - his life and his outlook. I know he’s a human being, just like me, with faults and misgivings and opinions. But the brotherhood and camaraderie and love that I feel for him, and vice versa, cannot be touched. I’ve had other Moriarty-types in my past, this I know. They have all taught me something on the road. But have I learned anything past feeling downtrodden and resentful? Where is my youthful spirit? Where is my IT? Do I have the ability to burn or have I lost it to unrelenting reality?
If I have, it is truly grief that I will feel. The same grief one feels when they sit down and stare at a blank piece of paper, just hoping and willing for the elation of ink upon white, words flowing from the mind through the fingers, through the keys, amidst the smoke to become something beautiful.