Two Catholic boys, Jack Kerouac, and Neal Cassidy are on a road trip by car across the American west to find the meaning of life. The badlands of New Mexico held all the secrets that New York City would never have. It could be a great book are a movie. But, as it turns out, it was a book first. What could go wrong?
It was 1947, and half the country still lived in a Norman Rockwell painting, and the other poor souls struggled with keeping food on their table and a decent job. The war was but a few years ago, and the scars were fresh and raw. As the movies would have you believe, not everyone had the good fortune to live in New York City and shop at Macy’s and Bloomingdales. The Hollywood boys covered everything in Fairy Dust and Unicorn Piss, and the commies were coming to your neighborhood. The two young men sensed the growing change and needed to find the “real America”; the wide-open, gritty, in-your-face, working man culture that made their country run on regular.
“On The Road” was published in 1951. The author, Jack Kerouac, a French Canadian American that didn’t learn to speak or write in English until he was six years old, became an instant literary celebrity and a reluctant prognosticator to the “Beats,” which would become the “Hippies” in the 1960s. He tolerated the Beats and the new intellectuals because he helped birth them, but grew to despise the Hippies before he died. He wrote many times that he was sorry they found his books and used them as their warped ideological drug-addled bible that led to the near destruction of his beloved country. The “beat generation,” another term he loathed, wasn’t meant to survive past 1960. The writings and musings made no sense after 1959. He believed everything had an expiration date.
Ginsburg and Burroughs kept the plates spinning; the publishing cash and the adulation were too strong to walk away just yet. So Kerouac moved on and became a drunkard and pill head. Fame, and all that came attached, was not his bag.
The only comparison to the book that I can think of would be the “road” movies of the 1940s. Two pals and a gal road-tripping to Nirvana. Kerouac would have been Bing Crosby and Cassidy a bi-polar Bob Hope with his girlfriend a sluttish Dorothy Lamour. But, of course, their adventure was adults only. Weed, booze, Minga Minga, and foul language would not have made it with old Bing and Bob.
The two main characters, Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarity, were the essential bad boys before it was cool. Their names alone were enough to make you buy the book. Every teenager that read it could easily place themselves in their universe for a while. Who knows how many ill-fated trips the book influenced.
My cousin and I toyed with the idea. First, to California and back to New York, then home to Texas in his Corvair Monza; then the effects of the pot wore off, we ate a cheeseburger and shit-canned the plan.
James Dean was a disciple, as was Marlon Brando. They wore bad boy cool like a soft leather jacket. The movie boys jumped on it. “Rebel Without A Cause” and “The Wild Ones” sent parents screaming through their middle-class neighborhoods with hair ablaze. Ozzie and Harriet doubled down. Pat Boone turned up the heat. Art Linkletter had a meltdown. The fifties were dying before our eyes.
I may revisit “On The Road” again. It sits on my bookshelf, aging like wine, and needs to be jostled.