Reviewing the 100 Best Novels of the 20th Century
by Annette Ferran
On the Road
Read enough novels and you start to develop the notion that there is such a thing as “the novel,” that there is a norm, differences in style, voice, attitude, and structure notwithstanding. And then pops up a novel that subverts this notion. One on the Modern Library’s list is Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (#55).
This novel occupies a place on another list of mine: the 10 books that have most influenced my life. (Naming your top 10 books is a challenge active in the social media realm right now. Try it; it’s interesting and amusing. Also, by exchanging lists with friends, you’ll surely get some more titles for your must-read list.)
Kerouac is, like Hemingway, an exhaustively discussed and analyzed American author, with himself as an artist as much the topic as his work—and with good reason, as Kerouac is the type of writer whose own self is inseparable from his creative output. On the Road is a piece of writing that comes straight from the gut. I believe if you read this book for the first time at the wrong age, it will land like a lump or pass right by you. But if you read it at the right time, it will lift you high.
The premise of the plot is a trip by car across the United States. The car is supposed to be delivered from the West coast to the East coast; the young men driving it are hired to complete this job. What happens in the course if this trip is an exultant meditation on just about everything in life, in the language of jazz. Jazz music at that time was crazy and heretical. It had entered an era of experimentation that exploded it out of its shell of “America’s classical music.” It was, depending on the listener’s stance, impossible to listen to, hardly resembling music at all, or a portal to the greatest aesthetic and spiritual experience ever. The magic of On the Road is how the writing captures the essence of this music. The language and rhythms of this writing are the typewritten equivalent of bebop jazz. Read one, listen to the other, and you have in your possession the spirit of that time in American life.
These people in this novel are outsiders, of course. They are not the norm. But they portended the great upheavals that the country was about to face. They were the avant-garde of the generation gap that itself became a norm. And this is why the novel is so influential. Through the courage, the rebellion, the rogue nature of Kerouac comes a work of semi-fiction that lets a young reader of a certain inclination know that other things are possible. Other lifestyles, other ways of viewing the world, other—more esoterically—aesthetic experiences exist for the curious, the restless, the disenfranchised, the creatively driven citizens of the world. There are paths to fulfillment through art that haven’t yet been forged.
Kerouac’s own life is not one, perhaps, to be emulated. He himself did not quite break free of the conventions to which he was born. He stayed with his mother, he stayed with his wife, he stayed tied to the small town and to the ethnicity of his origin. He carried in his psyche all the conflicts of all of the above and then some, and they ended up killing him young. But what he left behind, creatively speaking, rises to the level of the religious, in this reader’s humble opinion.
Annette Ferran lives in King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, and works in Philadelphia as an editor for a medical publisher. She is also the Associate Editor for 10,000 Tons of Black Ink, a Literary Writers Network publication. She has a degree of dubious practical use, in German, and is a lifelong avid reader of fiction and lover of lists. She has had a few short stories published, most recently in RE:AL.