“I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up. I had gotten over a serious illness that I won’t bother to talk about, except that it had something to do with the miserably weary split-up and my feeling that everything was dead.” This central character of Kerouac’s On the Road, Dean Moriarty, based on Kerouac’s friend Neal Cassady, embodies America, its criminal heart, its shuddering sex-crazed body, and its mad hobo soul.
This novel is often cited as the hallmark of the “beat generation” — a term Kerouac despised. But it is not just a record of crazy hipsters and wandering tramps. This book bleeds the madness of jazz and the longing of blues. It feels American, in the way Whitman’s Leaves of Grass does. “He woke up with a start at dawn. Off we roared, and an hour later the smoke of Des Moines appeared ahead over the green cornfields.” Like all great art, On the Road transforms rogues into heroes and a dying culture into something terrible and romantic.
As the characters roar back and forth in the great triangle of San Francisco, New York, and Mexico City, they find love, they find death, they find each other. Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, and a host of other writers and artists enter and leave the hip, infinite dance. But this is really an homage to Neal Cassady, the madman of the American road, a man who took life deep into his belly with one great “Yaaaas!”
Where have you gone Neal Cassady? Are you driving on a dark road or playing an endless game of pool or kissing gone girls in brown saloons? What dreaming America do you prophecy now? Is death better than the wild romps of Denver backlots of your youth?
Come back to us.