Tuesday, September 2, 2008

On the Road, by Jack Kerouac

I was in elementary school when this classic was published, several years after Kerouac finished the first draft. That first draft was one long scroll (120 feet long, all one paragraph, all taped together so Kerouac could type without stopping to change paper), which has only recently been printed in its entirety. The version that Kerouac saw in print, though, is what Matt Dillon reads on this CD edition. I had not read it before and I was pleased to find it in time to listen to it on a short road trip of my own.

This official version was edited to remove the more sexually explicit passages, but it still reveals Kerouac's comfort with minorities and subcultures, an unusual position at the time.

On the Road conjures up visions of a free and easy lifestyle, rich in drugs, women, song, and adventure. Many others have gone on the road since Kerouac and his friend Neal Cassady, perhaps inspired by his tale. If so, I am not entirely sure why.

Yes, the road trips - there are several of them in this tale - do involve drugs, women, song, adventure. Certainly Kerouac appears to enjoy many of these adventures. But that enjoyment at times seems forced, as if he feels he should paint it all with a broad brush of crazy good times. Leaking through and finding a stronger voice as the trips go on is Jack's real goal: to find a woman to love, to marry, to settle down, to be a responsible adult. What also comes through in spite of some fairly wild exploits is his fundamental humanity, his compassion for others. I couldn't help liking him, in contrast to some of his friends.

It's easy to see how this lengthy confessional journey led to "gonzo journalism", a more personal point of view, and to today's public blogs.

Matt Dillon recorded the tale in a voice that seems to be not impressed with itself. It's almost flat, uninterested, trying to get the story out there and letting it fall where it may. By contrast, whenever Dillon speaks as Cassady ("Dean Moriarty" in this edition) he affects a voice that has years of drinking and playing around in it. While the voice is at times hilarious, I found it difficult to connect that raw voice to a very young man. It seemed at least forty years old to me. At times I wanted more from the Kerouac voice and perhaps a bit less from Cassady's.

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