I hate to do it, because I know that On the Road came first, I know it’s an iconic book that deserves its own space, but I have to compare the book with books that came afterward — Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Fight Club, Into the Wild, and even Catcher in the Rye. These are books that are about either hitting the road, rebelling against mainstream society, and/or meeting a person that changes your life. And because I read these books first, their place is dearer to my heart.
In many ways, On the Road is about the pure freedom of the road and a celebration of a great friendship. There is a simple honesty that comes through the book — but one that fails to grapple (or be hassled with) questions of why. Why hit the road? Why engage with Dean Moriarty? Why choose one road instead of another?
It seems like every decision is instinctual and necessary in the void of reflection. And in this void of reflection are all the people who are hurt by the random wanderings of the author and Dean. Trainspotting is also a book about avoiding mainstream society (through drug addiction), and in this book, the characters also hurt others, but we are sympathetic at times to these characters because we know why they are rebelling. (The alternative is being a boring disgraceful middle-class c**t).
Why exactly are Sal and Dean rebelling? Why are they on the road and not working a nine-to-five?
They may “dig” the world, but that does not mean that the world must dig them back. In their constant whirlwind of travel, they fail to abide by the simple rule laid down by one great philosopher Ferris Bueller – Life moves pretty fast. If you don’t stop to look around every once in a while, you may miss it.
As for a narrative version of the Ferris Bueller rule, we might say — If you don’t reflect upon actions, then the reader might not know why they are important.
For me, Catcher in the Rye is the book whose shadow On the Road can’t quite escape. Holden’s journey is framed as a spiritual one. In the background is a tragedy. And while Holden’s reflections are often the shallow reflections of a high school student, they are in their own ways very deep. In On the Road, we barely get to know Sal Paradise as a person – other than that he likes to move and digs things from time to time. Why this digging is important, or why he shuns more conventional pursuits is never explained.
Also, in the book we are talked to as if we are insiders, almost like some high school senior’s inflated story of a Friday night kegger. Guess who was a the party? Am I supposed to know these people or why they matter? Who is Sal? Who is Dean? Why should I care? Why should I take a car with them? Why should I care about them more than I care about the victims of their cons?
Why is it important to take high-school level callousness into adulthood? Does the writer really have a college education? Doesn’t seem like it. Does it matter? Don’t ask questions…Lesgo! Lesgo!
Maybe Sal Paradise is right. Perhaps none of these things matter. Perhaps it’s square to ask too many why questions, especially if the essence of “digging” is just to soak in and not to question too much.
If that’s the life lesson of this book and you can dig it, then stop reading this review and, as Dean would say, “Lesgo! Lesgo!”