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

Image of On the Road
Author: Jack Kerouac
Price:
Publisher: Penguin Books (2012)
Binding: Paperback, 304 pages
Jacey Cockrobin

Column by Joshua Chaplinsky

Joshua Chaplinsky is the Managing Editor of LitReactor.com. He has also written for the popular film site Screen Anarchy and for ChuckPalahniuk.net, the official website of 'Fight Club' author Chuck Palahniuk. He is the author of 'Kanye West—Reanimator.' His short fiction has appeared in Zetetic, Motherboard, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Thuglit, Dark Moon Digest, Pantheon Magazine, and multiple print anthologies. More info at joshuachaplinsky.com.

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Comments

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words January 2, 2013 - 11:34am

didn't like it when I read it in my 20s - (mind you, I haven't read it since, and it's been a good long while). The one part that stands out in my mind is the aunt who kept sending him money - I'd go on the road if I had an investor.

Brian McElmurry's picture
Brian McElmurry January 2, 2013 - 11:59am

I read the original scroll when it was at the Denver Library in '07, and it was amazing. I'm a fan of Kerouac, but also see some of his other books--and obstinate "spontaneous prose"--needs editting. The thing people hate is the "hippy" "beatnik" whatever name-calling you want to associate with it, but he gets a feeling and emotions of being young and travelling and living--existing. On The Road is actually editted quite well, unlike other books of his, like Big Sur, and is a greatlty written, culturaly significant book of the 20th century.

I see a bias of the writer of this article, calling the book "bro", and calling the scroll "toilet paper". This bias shaded your opinion, and that's fine. NO one has done this again so well. Take a BUNCH OF SPEED AND ACTUALLY WRITE A GREAT BOOK IN 3-WEEKS, not that anyone should do that.

Also, Kerouac was lower-class. His dad was a printer and died when Kerouac was a late teen. Kerouac was poor, living with his mom. Kerouac got into Columbia on scholarship and worked blue-collar jobs, when he worked. He was mostly a bum until he could make a living of writing in his mid-30's. He never had a lot of money, so noting "middle-class malaise" is way off for Kerouac. He was an artist and a visionary.

 

KEROUAC is the shit!!!

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words January 2, 2013 - 12:47pm

On The Road ...  is a greatlty written, culturaly significant book of the 20th century.

to qualify - it's culturally significant to USAmericans in the latter half of the 20th century. I have my doubts that it will have the lasting power of William Shakespeare when it comes to great works of literature in English (which, of course, is an unfair comparison).

it may be culturally significant, but I think calling it "greatly written" is hyperbolic.

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading Stories of YOUR Life January 2, 2013 - 1:02pm

@Brian: My opinion is totally biased, as a column called Your Favorite Book Sucks should be. Thanks for taking the time to read and giving yours.

David G's picture
David G January 2, 2013 - 4:28pm

I read On the Road in my 20's and to say the book changed my life would be an understatement. Thanks to that book, I discovered I wanted to be a writer and how I wanted to live my life from that point onward. 

That being said, I have always known that On the Road is not for everyone. I have lent the book to countless people who either hated it or couldn't manage to finish it at all. It's just that kind of book. People have definite opinions about it and not once have I read or heard a middle of the road reaction. 

Hell, I get the same kind of look when I tell people I hated Watchmen.

EricMBacon's picture
EricMBacon from Vermont is reading The Autobiography of a Corpse January 2, 2013 - 4:37pm

Great article! Another book that falls into this category is J.D. Salinger's A Catcher in the Rye. I loved it when I was a freshman in high school because I was in the thick of discovering how much the average person of authority was full of shit. Now, I look back on it and cannot relate anymore. I suppose it is a way of measuring one's life. I still think it is a great book, but could not wish it upon anyone to carry a disaffected youth attitude into their thirties or fourties. 

One part of Rye that I hate with a passion is the same bulshit mistake that Twain made with Huckleberry Finn: he pussed out at the end. Twain started writing Huck with some balls. He was going to take a stand on slavery, but at the very end he tarnished the whole adventure by taking away any true consequence. As it turned out, Jim was already a freedman. Salinger does the same thing by taking away Holden Caulfield's voice. To be fair, this admission that the main character is "nuts" begins on page one, but it takes away his credibility on all of the smart critiques and discoveries he makes about other people and society in general. In my opinion, there was some valuable things to be said, but the messenger ruined it. It was surprising to me that Salinger was a man who would round his edges, but he really neutered Caulfield.

 

edsikov's picture
edsikov from New York by way of Natrona Hts PA is reading absolutely nothing January 3, 2013 - 8:04am

I liked it.

--Ed

ryan elliot wilson's picture
ryan elliot wilson from los angeles is reading Threats by Amelia Gray January 3, 2013 - 3:32pm

It's interesting the beating On the Road and Catcher have taken--especially lately, when they're in their sixties. I've seen a lot of vitriol aimed at these two books, seemingly by the same crowd with the same beefs. It's interesting only because both books are so ridiculously generous. To be a generous writer is to offer up a world to the reader, one they can enter fully, without caution or fear. I'm certainly not one to judge these books as good, great, sucky, important, overrated, whatever. Those labels always fall apart, because they have no substance. They're subjective designations. What does have substance as a measure of a story is the depth of the world, its characters, and the vitality of the language in that world--both books succeed wildly here. After that, it's all just a matter of personal taste.

Honest (not belligerent) suggestion for those who think Kerouac a "bad writer": Take a listen to the audio recordings he made, such as The Last Hotel & Some of the Dharma, or anything really. Pretty sure if that guy got up there at your standard poetry reading, you might lean over and ask your neighbor, "who the fuck was that!?!"

Nick's picture
Nick from Toronto is reading Adjustment Day January 6, 2013 - 8:47pm

Love Kerouac but hate hipsters... I think because Jack was the real deal and the hipsters that came after him are copies of imposters. His writing wasn't perfect, and I guess he's known more for his personality (his actual personality; not his image) than his work. And so the criticism is justified.

Anyway, I prefer Lonesome Traveller.

Ted Wolf's picture
Ted Wolf March 22, 2013 - 12:56pm

I've made it about 2/3s of the way through this "must read" and it only has taken me 12 years. I figure I'll finish it before I'm dead.