Greatest Books I’ve Never Read #1: “On The Road”

Posted by Nick Curley

In each volume of his bound-to-be-award-winning series “The Greatest Books I’ve Never Read”, avid procrastinator and V1 editor Nick Curley profiles a renowned tome of fiction that, for a variety of reasons, he has not gotten around to completing during his tenure on this earth.  In other words: an almost entirely uninformed book review.  This series aims to be confessional, cathartic, and as embarrassing as possible. It is an inquiry into non-reading where reading should have been: a descent into the illiterate soul. Join him in our shared, faux-bookish plight: we are in this together, and he is dying for your sins.

THIS WEEK’S ADVENTURE: On the Road by Jack Kerouac (Viking, 1957)

SYNOPSIS OF PRESUMED EXCELLENCE: Famously written on a 120 foot long scroll of teletype paper, Kerouac’s tale of road trippers Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty sought to achieve a style in tune with improvisations in jazz and the rollicking informality of a letter to a friend, dubbing his approach “spontaneous prose”. The book is not without detractors: in 1959 Truman Capote infamously said of Kerouac’s work, “That’s not writing, that’s typing.” Le Monde, the Modern Library and Time have all recently named it one of the 100 best English-language novels of the 20th century, and upon its publication the New York Times deemed it “the most beautifully executed… utterance yet made by the generation that Kerouac himself named years ago as ‘beat’.

WHY I DIDN’T READ IT: To begin, let me say that this is a book that many of my friends from adolescence presume I have read. To hear that I haven’t will shake them to their core. They presume this because I spent much of the late nineties in a black turtleneck. That quote from Capote in the previous paragraph? I only know it from the episode of Freaks and Geeks in which Lindsay Weir eviscerates Road and her smug English teacher in one fell swoop. An episode of television that I watched, I might add, while I was supposed to be writing a freshman year essay on The Scarlet Letter, yet another classic of Western lit that I have eluded lo these many years.

In the name of transparency I’ll specify that I did read roughly the first thirty pages of the book about fifteen years ago, when I was 12. Because reading On the Road seemed like something a smarmy prick of a sixth grader should do when pre-pube girls are not exactly knocking down his door. Frankly, they built a second door directly behind the first. At that tender age Kerouac’s high-on-crank style was an irksome quagmire. Where were the big words and fancy punctuation? I already had the turtleneck, and figured that even if I gave up on the book, my peers would more or less get the idea: me smart, you dumb. It’s not like anyone else was chatting up the Beats during our gym class’ mandatory square dance and Tae-Bo routines.

SKIMMING AT THE ELEVENTH HOUR: Flipping through the book today in an uptown B&N was surprisingly pleasant. The prose is so blunt that it seems the novel could be read cover-to-cover in the time it takes one’s amphetamine dealer to arrive at one’s predetermined park bench. It’s composed not so much as a novel as the recollections of a drunk at a party relating that novel’s juiciest passages. This does not make it a bad book: easy can feel quite good. Also notable: in reading an online summary, it seems that the character of Dean fathers four children over the narrative’s three years, with three different women. That’s an average of one “miracle” (mistake) every sixteen months. It’s a pity that condoms would not be invented for over twenty years after Road‘s publication, with the sheathing of R2-D2 in 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back, as wrapping it up would have afforded Kerouac’s fun-loving duo even more opportunities to act like filthy deadbeat sailors.

WILL I READ IT IN THE IMMEDIATE FUTURE? Probably before this year’s film adaptation is released and forcibly typecasts the characters into my brainscope. Still mad that Kubrick made Malcolm McDowell synonymous with A Clockwork Orange when Burt Reynolds was ripe for the pickling. I will read the book briskly in the privacy of my home to avoid public shame. Failing that, I will sneak into a junior high library and gut my way through it while sitting on top of a comically short particleboard table. I’m a goddamned adult and they finally can’t stop me from sitting on the table if I so please.

THE TAKEAWAY: Most enjoyable is the sense that this is a book largely about a sex-crazed bullshitter faking his way into highbrow literary culture. Dean Moriarty: a potential hero for all of us pseudo-bookworms? Indeed, this may have been the perfect book for that sixth grade snob in the turtleneck after all.

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