“I Woke up as the sun was reddening; and that was the one distinct time in my life, the strangest moment of all, when I didn’t know who I was…I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost. I was halfway across America, at the dividing line between the East of my youth and the West of my future, and maybe that’s why it happened right there and then, that strange red afternoon.” Sal Paradise, narrator, On the Road
My favoutite comedy of the eighties is undoubtedly Down and Out in Beverly Hills with Nick Nolte, Richard Dreyfus and Bette Midler. Nolte plays a hobo who in the opening of the film losses his dog named Kerouac. “Kerouac! Kerouac!” he hollers as he ambles around Beverly Hills looking for Kerouac. Over Christmas I finally sat down and read some Kerouac, On the Road, which, entirely coincidentally, has been made into a just released Hollywood Movie . I now understand the poetry of a hobo’s dog named Kerouac.
I found On the Road to be an enthralling and unforgettable read. A great American novel about America. The book is about many things. Its about The Road, of course, the great expanse of America seen from buses, box-cars and flat-bed trucks. It’s about buddies, about girls, about growing up, about life, about poverty, about booze, about drugs, about hipsters, and about getting “beat” down by life’s hardships. But most of all, I have decided, its about Nothing.
Not “about nothing” in the Seinfeld sense of the word. But rather the Buddhist sense. The Neti kind of nothing. Kerouac, a Buddhist, provides for us an interpretation of a journey towards Nirvana, a state of being empty of one’s self and alive to the transcendent, told from the perspective of a bunch of crazy young people living purely for “kicks,” roving from one wild and irresponsible adventure to the next. Driving the frenzy is the main character’s friend Dean, a criminal, who seems on a quest to know and experience the great and ecstatic joy of utter transcendence and connection with eternal truth.
Set in the late 1940’s, the post war characters in On the Road rattle your sense of what people were like back then. Kerouac writes:
“Dean took our picture. I realized these were all the snapshots which our children would look at someday with wonder, thinking their parents had lived smooth, well-ordered, stabilized-withing-the-photo lives and got up in the morning to walk proudly on the sidewalks of life, never dreaming the raggedy madness and riot of our actual lives, or actual night, the hell of it, the senseless nightmare road. All of it inside endless and beginingless emptiness.”
This quote in a way captures the essence of the whole book. It is about coming of age and morning the loss of youth’s ability to find spontaneous ecstasy and meaning in the fleeting experiences of life. Kerouac’s characters are far from happy in the mundane sense of the word, but they embody the undeniable attraction of hedonism, the longing to wring every possible ounce of pleasure out of every moment of existence, rather than be serious, responsible and proper. Kerouac is often cited as giving birth to the hippie movement of the 1960s.
And now I know why.