Tuesday, January 13, 2004

"We all realised we were leaving confusion and nonsense behind and performing our one and noble function of the time, MOVE"

When I told a friend recently that Jack Kerouac's 'On The Road' was sitting on my bookshelf as yet unread, he laughed and said I'd better read it quick before I get too old - so that's just what I did.

The novel details "the raggedy madness and riot" of the lives of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty as they travel, beg, borrow and steal their way across America from coast to coast in search of excitement and kicks. It's not hard to see why it's been quite such an influential and inspirational book, chronicling as it does the joyous recklessness of youth in post-war America in such breathless prose that the reader is swept up in the tumult of it all, the characters' restlessness and openness to new experiences in which to delight, even in the face of poverty and deprivation.

More than that, 'On The Road' is a powerful statement of the American love affair with the car, as a metaphor for freedom, and of the obsessive lust for exploration and for wide open spaces. As the title suggests, the road itself is perhaps the most potent metaphor for freedom - the emphasis firmly on the journey and not the destination, which doesn't matter because there isn't any real end point to it all anyway: "What is that feeling when you're driving away from people and they recede on the plain till you see their specks dispersing? - it's the too-huge world vaulting us, and it's good-bye. But we lean forward to the next crazy venture beneath the skies".

Of course it would be easy to be cynical about it all - it would be easy to trace the going-to-Goa-to-sample-the-culture-and-take-drugs-and-thereby-"find-yourself" gap-year rites-of-passage bollocks back to its beginnings in this book, and some might argue that to call it "an exploration of personal freedom, a test of the limits of the American dream" (as the back-cover blurb of my copy does) is to dress up the sprawling, brawling antics of a bunch of wasters in inappropriately grandiose finery. But this can only come after - when you're actually reading the novel you can't help but absorb and become immersed in the manic energy of it and its characters.

Well worth a read (if you're still young at heart) - and not least because the passages about jazz are brilliant pieces of music writing.

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