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Jack Kerouac: On The Road

This book may be one of the biggest cult books published during the twentieth century. It was written in just three weeks on a continuous scroll of paper and became the bible of the Beat Generation and hence an influence on a generation of writers, musicians and many ordinary people. It described the life on the road of Kerouac and his friends and most of the characters in the novel are based on real people. It is narrated by Sal Paradise, who is based on Kerouac. He meets Dean Moriarty (the third sentence of the book reads With the coming of Dean Moriarty began the part of my life you could call my life on the road.) They meet Carlo Marx (Allen Ginsberg) and later meet Old Bull Lee (William Burroughs). The book is divided into three parts. In the first part Sal travels across country to San Francisco, where he gets job as a guard in a security camp but he does not hold the job for long. On the bus to Los Angeles, he meets a Mexican woman, called Terry, who is running away from her husband. It is his only satisfactory relationship with a woman in the book but it doesn’t last. Part Two, which takes place the following year, has Dean Moriarty as the epic hero and the two travel to San Francisco and New Orleans but their plans to go to Italy fall apart when Dean becomes a father for the fourth time. Part Three has the two of them in a car back on the road to San Francisco. They head off for Mexico City but Sal falls ill and Dean leaves him, leaving Sal to think that Dean is a rat. This part is the most colourful of the novel, fuelled, as it is, by drugs. Sal ends up in New York thinking of the forlorn rags of growing old and thinking of Old Dean Moriarty, the father we never found.

Does it work? As a novel of freedom and escape and some sort of rebellion, it became a key work for many and not just Americans. It is perhaps a novel you need to read before you are twenty-five. But Kerouac is a talented writer and the story of Sal, who increasingly finds himself not just a rebel but a man who does not know when he is going, and of Dean, the failed epic hero, is a key story of the twentieth century.

Publishing history

First published 1957 by Viking