The road trip is a popular theme in American literature. Ever since Lewis and Clark chronicled their expedition of 1804, America's appetite for the genre has been insatiable. But there's more to a successful story than the mere nuts and bolts of a travelogue; it needs soul, character, and - above all else - tension to keep the pages turning.
Perhaps the most famous chronicle of the road trip genre is Jack Kerouac's enduring classic, ON THE ROAD (New American Library, $3.95). Originally published in 1957, it tosses convention on its ear and through a seemingly endless series of run-on sentences put the Beat Generation firmly on the map. At the time of its writing, the seedy subculture that was to become known as Beat took a backseat to the post-war economic boom enjoyed by mainstream America, shut out - as it were - of the party, and so created their own party out of jazz joints and urban ghettos composed of other disenfranchised souls in search of It: It, being riding the edge of the moment; It, being the freaky booze-addled, drug-induced alt-reality that lent to misfits a sense of belonging, altogether divorced of the post-war apocalyptic military-industrial fever quietly sweeping through "respectable" circles. It, the antithesis of respectability, It, out of this world.
Upon completion of the manuscript, Kerouac purportedly delivered it to his publisher on one continuous roll of paper which he'd pounded out on the keys of a typewriter in practically one sitting which in itself is a feat and very Beat approach to writing which you gotta dig if for nothing else the cat's unique style. The story follows Sal Paradise in his pursuit west from New York to Denver, then San Francisco, back the other direction and eventually south to Mexico and back, at times in the presence of Dean Moriarty a practically god-like figure in Sal's eyes for his checkered past and bold present pursuit of self-gratification and his father a seemingly mythical creature always just out of reach, the source of Dean's angst and excuse for his wanderlust: Dad's a hobo. Though Sal uses the senior Moriarty as his reason for much of his travels - he sincerely wishes to see the father and son reunited - there's a bromance going on here that cannot be denied, Sal knows it, Dean knows it and it's the underlying tension of it that makes ON THE ROAD a page turner, the tension of longing, the tension that comes from the difference between the idea of Dean Moriarty and the reality of Dean Moriarty, loser, winner, player, dreamer, conspirator, user, and sadly, liability. When plans are made to see Europe together, despite their enthusiasm we just know it's never going to happen for these cats, the junior Moriarty trapped as it were in his father's legacy, pursued by Sal just as his father is pursued by the son, eternally just out of reach. Europe never does happen for these cats - no surprise to either of them - but how it never happens makes for a great read.
Did I mention Kerouac's penchant for run-on sentences?