|My senior year book page, featuring the Jack Kerouac quote, published in 1994|
On the Road (1957)
by Jack Kerouac
For my senior year high school yearbook, each student got an entire page to lay out a combination of pictures and text. The year is 1994. My photograph is a picture of me in a Nirvana t-shirt, which I wore fully as a shirt meant to "symbolize" the place and time I went to high school. The major quote on the page is from On the Road, the familiar refrain of, “[...]the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars," which, even in 1994 I'm sure I used as a symbol of my high school experience, having long since finished with any kind of inspirational/emulative feeling I may have obtained from my first reading of Jack Kerouac's On the Road while in high school.
Kerouac was never my favorite Beat (William Burroughs) and he wasn't even a strong second. To the extent that Beat culture had been fully co-opted by "mainstream" culture between 1957 and 1994, On the Road by Jack Kerouac was the primary example, Exhibit "A" as it were. Reading it in 2016 is an experience for me of reflecting on almost 30 years of intellectual exploration. The popularity of On the Road is no mystery. Kerouac turned out a perfect synthesis of middle-of-the-road literary technique (stream of consciousness) with a well plotted tale about a coterie of disaffected artist/criminal/bohemian's who just happened to be the most culturally influential group of American writers for that time. Although fictionalized Carlos Marx (Allen Ginsburg) and Old Bull Lee (William Burroughs) are impossible to mistake. Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady) is an historic character, and he pops up not just at the center of On the Road, but also as a major part of the Electric Kool Aid Acid Test, where he literally drove the bus that carried the Merry Pranksters across the country.
On the Road, like all great roman a clef's, is a memorable mix of personal experience and carefully crafted illusion. Thus, the Dean Moriarity/Neal Cassady character, a classic manic-depressive drug addict type, is portrayed as all manic, no depression. The benzedrine tabs that fueled Kerouac himself and undoubtedly played a huge role in Dean Moriarty's day-to-day existence are excluded almost entirely.
Minimizing aside, I went through a substantial "Beat period" in high school and extending in to my early college years. It was easy enough, living in the San Francisco Bay Area through the end of high school. The divorced father of my high school crush was a Southern California academic with a legit connection to the 1950's beat poetry scene, he gave me a hand copied poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti when I was dating his daughter. I took the train into San Francisco from the East Bay suburbs and would sit, by myself, in the upstairs room of the City Lights Book Store in North Park. I would buy a book, go to Cafe Treiste, have a cappuccino and then walk the streets of North Park, squinting and trying to imagine life there during the period of this book.
The major surprise of reading On the Road in 2016 is how much material there is about the other places Sal Paradise (Kerouac) travels. The Denver of Neal Cassady is well represented. New Orleans in and around the time William Burroughs was in residence and even Los Angeles, which gets a memorable cameo mid book.