Columns > Published on January 2nd, 2013

Your Favorite Book Sucks: 'On The Road'

Your Favorite Book Sucks is an ongoing column, written by different people, that takes a classic or popular book and argues why it isn't really all that great. Confrontational, to be sure, but it's all in good fun, so please play nice.


Damn dirty self-indulgent over-rated hippie tripe.

-High School Josh on Jack Kerouac's travelogue cum beat bible, On The Road.

Jack Kerouac's seminal On The Road is considered one of the most important literary works of the 20th century. Important because it defined a generation; seminal because everyone jizzed themselves over it. Ironically, the book that defined a generation was itself ill-defined: a non-story chronicling the cross-country escapades of dude-bros* Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty. There and Back Again times four, where "There" is anywhere, and one time: Mexico. The first draft was churned out in a (presumably drug-fueled) three week session, of which Truman Capote famously said, "That isn't writing; it's typing." (Capote could be such a bitch.) Of course, committing the whole thing to a glorified roll of toilet paper didn't garner Kerouac any favor with the literary elite already claiming the book was shit.

Let's take a look at some other negative reactions, shall we?

David Dempsey of The New York Times called it a road "that leads to nowhere," a sentiment echoed by Phoebe Lou Adams of The Atlantic Monthly:

[On The Road] disappoints because it constantly promises a revelation or a conclusion of real importance and general applicability, and cannot deliver any such conclusion because Dean is more convincing as an eccentric than as a representative of any segment of humanity... Everything Mr. Kerouac has to say about Dean has been told in the first third of the book, and what comes later is a series of variations on the same theme.

Time magazine wrote, "The post-World War II generation... has not found symbolic spokesmen with anywhere near the talents of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, or Nathaniel West" and called Kerouac a "literary James Dean." Basically, he had little to offer other than good looks and youthful rebellion. But the magazine would later change its tune by naming On The Road one of the 100 Best Books of All Time (all time being 1923-2005).

So I wasn't the only one who didn't like it. And all you have to do is peruse the one-star Amazon reviews to find legions more. Common complaints include less eloquent variations on the opinions expressed above: the book is boring, pointless, and poorly written.

As I got older and my memory of the novel faded, the cause of my dislike transferred from the quality of the content to the people associated with liking it, and I think that's a trap a lot of people fall into. I was put off by the white middle-class malaise, directionless people who associated unemployment with "finding themselves," which is ironic, because I spent my early twenties driving around the country and playing in bands. I supposed I fancied myself "unique," and was in denial that everyone in their twenties fancies themselves unique, which is why they take pot shots at others in an effort to defend said uniqueness, thus negating it.

A lot of my distaste also had to do with the rise of the hipster subculture, which appeared to be the heir apparent to the Beat Generation. The term hipster actually originated during the time of the Beats, and referred to "middle-class white youths seeking to emulate the lifestyle of the largely black jazz musicians they followed."[1] After World War II, hipster culture expanded to include the literary scene of the time. Kerouac described them as "rising and roaming America, bumming and hitchhiking everywhere [as] characters of a special spirituality."[2] Well, it looks like a new generation of hitchhikers has found its Mecca and put down roots in... Brooklyn. The modern hipster is still assimilating with the precision and personality of the Borg, and On The Road has been sucked into their amalgamation machine. It's like a quaint episode of Girls where people actually move beyond their sphere.

Still, it's odd that so many young people continue to latch on to Kerouac. On The Road isn't the first novel about disaffected youth culture rebelling against the status quo, and it certainly won't be the last. It's kind of like the story of Noah's ark: It isn't the original flood myth, but it is the most well known. And once you realize similar stories exist in almost every culture, many which pre-date the one in question, you start to understand it isn't the be-all end-all.

It's also odd that Kerouac is considered such a giant of American letters, and that On The Road is a pillar of one of the most American of genres: the Road Novel. The man was a French Canadian, for Christ's sake! He may have been born in America, but he didn't learn English until the ripe-old age of six, and even then, he struggled with the language until early adulthood.[3] Some would say his whole life.

It's like a quaint episode of Girls where people actually move beyond their sphere.

But if Time magazine can change its mind, I can too. So keep that batch of tar and feathers on simmer. I'm much the older since my last read-through and thought it prudent to give ol' Jack another chance before spouting vitriol all over these hallowed halls. This isn't my first day on the internet, after all. And what I've come away from my latest reading with is a more measured assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of Kerouac's free-wheelin' adventure: It's not the worst thing ever committed to (toilet) paper. Sure, I still recognize the novel's flaws and despise its characters, but re-reading it didn't result in anger tremens or reverse defecation. And what's more--I get it. To go back to my Noah's ark analogy, it's just another version of an archetypal story that almost everyone can identify with at some point in their life. And if you are at a point where you don't identify with it, it's a sacred cow that's easy to take shots at. And the amount of derision you direct at it is directly proportional to the opinions of the opposition. Classic cause and effect. It's how Nickelback can simultaneously be the most popular and most hated band in the world. Am I saying Kerouac is the Nickelback of literature? They do rhyme...

So, yeah... it's annoying when college freshmen gush all over it or aging hippies wax bonerific, but that doesn't make On The Road any less important. That being said, just because a book is "important' doesn't mean it's good. But just because a book is bad, that doesn't mean it totally sucks.

Which side are you on? Do you think On The Road sucks? Is it the masterpiece many claim? Or is it lukewarm, to be spewed out of your mouth, like so many middle of the road Christians?


*What, just because they fancied themselves bohemians means we should romanticize their actions? Last I checked, partying your face off and taking advantage of inebriated chicks was still frat house behavior.**

**Speaking of frat house, people tend to forget that Kerouac went to Columbia University on a football scholarship.[3]

[1] "Hipsters" by Dan Fletcher

[2] Wikipedia

[3] Wikipedia

About the author

Joshua Chaplinsky is the Managing Editor of LitReactor. He is the author of The Paradox Twins (CLASH Books), the story collection Whispers in the Ear of A Dreaming Ape, and the parody Kanye West—Reanimator. His short fiction has been published by Vice, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Thuglit, Severed Press, Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing, Broken River Books, and more. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @jaceycockrobin. More info at joshuachaplinsky.com and unravelingtheparadox.com.


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