Sal Paradise at 50
By DAVID BROOKS
Published: October 2, 2007
A few decades ago, before TV commercials became obsessively concerned with prostate problems, Jack Kerouac wrote a book called ï¿½??On the Road.ï¿½?? It was greeted rapturously by many as a burst of rollicking, joyous American energy. People quoted the famous lines: ï¿½??The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn.ï¿½??
In the Times review that launched the book, Gilbert Millstein raved that ï¿½??On the Roadï¿½?? was a frenzied search for affirmation, a book that rejected the ennui, pessimism and cynicism of the Lost Generation. The heroes of the book savored everything, enjoyed everything, took pleasure in everything.
But, of course, all this was before the great geriatric pall settled over the world, before it became illegal to be cheerful.
ï¿½??On the Roadï¿½?? turned 50 last month, and over the past few weeks a line of critics have taken another look at the book, and this time their descriptions of it, whether they like it or not, are very different.
ï¿½??Above all else, the story is about loss,ï¿½?? George Mouratidis, one of the editors of a new edition, told The Age in Melbourne.
ï¿½??Itï¿½??s a book about death and the search for something meaningful to hold on to ï¿½?? the famous search for ï¿½??IT,ï¿½?? a truth larger than the self, which, of course, is never found,ï¿½?? wrote Meghan Oï¿½??Rourke in Slate.
ï¿½??Kerouac was this deep, lonely, melancholy man,ï¿½?? Hilary Holladay of the University of Massachusetts told The Philadelphia Inquirer. ï¿½??And if you read the book closely, you see that sense of loss and sorrow swelling on every page.ï¿½??
ï¿½??In truth, ï¿½??On the Roadï¿½?? is a book of broken dreams and failed plans,ï¿½?? wrote Ted Gioia in The Weekly Standard.
In Book Forum, David Ulin noted that ï¿½??even the most frantic of Kerouacï¿½??s writings were really the sagas of a solitary seeker: poor, sad Jack, adrift in a world without mercy when heï¿½??d rather be ï¿½??safe in Heaven dead.ï¿½?? ï¿½??
According to these and other essays, ï¿½??On the Roadï¿½?? is the book you want to read if you find Sylvia Plath too upbeat.
And of course theyï¿½??re not wrong. There was a traditionalist, darker side to Kerouac, as John Leland emphasizes in his book ï¿½??Why Kerouac Matters: The Lessons of On the Road (Theyï¿½??re Not What You Think).ï¿½??
But reading through the anniversary commemorations, you feel the gravitational pull of the great Boomer Narcissus. All cultural artifacts have to be interpreted through whatever experiences the Baby Boomer generation is going through at that moment.
So a book formerly known for its youthful exuberance now becomes a book of gloomy middle-aged disillusion. (In 20 years, ï¿½??The Cat in the Hatï¿½?? will be read as a commentary on unreliable home health care workers.)
And thereï¿½??s something else going on, something to do with the great taming professionalism of American culture. ï¿½??On the Roadï¿½?? has been semi-incorporated into modern culture, but only parts have survived.
Students are taught ï¿½??On the Roadï¿½?? in class, then must write tightly organized, double-spaced term papers on it, and if they donï¿½??t get an A, it hurts their admissions prospects. The book is still talked about, but often by professional intellectuals in panel discussions and career-building journal articles.
The effect is that some of the book comes through fine ï¿½?? the longing, the nostalgia for home, the darker pessimism.
But the real secret of the book was its discharge of youthful energy, the stupid, reckless energy that saves ï¿½??On the Roadï¿½?? from being a dreadful novel. The delightful, moronic, unreflective fizz appears whenever the characters are happiest, when they are chasing girls or urinating from a swerving flatbed truck while going 70 miles an hour.
Those parts havenï¿½??t survived. They run afoul of the new gentility, the rules laid down by the health experts, childcare experts, guidance counselors, safety advisers, admissions officers, virtuecrats and employers to regulate the lives of the young. They seem dangerous, childish and embarrassing in the world of professionalized adolescence and professionalized intellect.
If Sal Paradise were alive today, heï¿½??d be a product of the new rules. Heï¿½??d be a grad student with an interest in power yoga, on the road to the M.L.A. convention with a documentary about a politically engaged Manitoban dance troop that he hopes will win a MacArthur grant. Heï¿½??d be driving a Prius, going a conscientious 55, wearing a seat belt and calling Mom from the Comfort Inns.
The only thing we know for sure is that this ethos wonï¿½??t last. Someday some hypermanic kid will produce a moronically maxed-out adventure odyssey that will spark the overdue rebellion among all the over-pressured SAT grinds, and us grumpy midlife critics will get to witness a new Kerouac, and the greatest pent-up young-life crisis in the history of the world.