I first read On the Road when I was in my late teens and revisited it again for a Beat lit class a few semesters later. Something of the hugeness in the characters presented and the vastness of the journeys undertaken were so infectious I found myself in a sweet unrest to travel. Some of these feelings have stayed with me. I still think it is a beautifully written book. The lifestyle, the optimism, and the people still fill me with awe. I still think tremendous is one of the greatest words in the English language.
But as I read and reflect on this book more in this next phase of my life, I am realizing more and more the choices presented and ultimately undertaken throughout and at the end of the book.
The novel is largely autobiographical and revolves around the experiencing of one Dean Moriarty from the perspective of the narrator, Sal Paradise. The ever-changing scenery, characters, and excitements distract the reader while Sal’s pedestal for Dean slowly disintegrates. For me, this disenchantment happens so gradually, it is easy to miss. Because of the constant movement, it is hard to realize that what Sal wants is family, and more importantly, a sort of father figure out of Dean. Dean also seems to be a symbol for the America everyone is “mad to know.” His vitality, the sense of promise he exudes, and the eventual decline all mirror America or at least our hopes for/of America. I find that in previous stages of my life, I was, like Sal, similarly plagued with a constant fear or missing out on things; gatherings, good times, the latest incarnation of God. Rereading this novel has been a good indication as to how I’ve changed. I get frustrated now, reading about these people who badly want to attain revelation and reality squander their days and weeks with pursuits which now seem purposeless to me. Sal Paradise even admits at one point, “What was I doing? Where was I going?” Only when Sal settles down with a makeshift family does he become acquainted consciously with his real desires. “I forgot all about the East and all about Dean and Carlo and the bloody road. I was a man of the earth, precisely as I had dreamed I would be, in Paterson.” He realized what he left Paterson for was a different kind of family than he had intended.
On the other hand, Dean has no desire to be domesticated. The only time we see Dean idolizing anyone he says, “That Rollo Greb is the greatest, most wonderful of all. That’s what I was trying to tell you- that’s what I want to be. I want to be like him. He’s never hung-up, he goes every direction, he lets it all out..” At another time Dean says, “Oh these dumb dumb dumb Okies, they’ll never change, how completely and how unbelievably dumb, the moment it comes time to act, this paralysis, scared, hysterical, nothing frightens em more than what they want- it’s my father my father my father all over again!” By putting these two quotes together, we understand how Dean’s identity is in a way a paralyzed and hysterical response to his father and his desire to be completely different from him. Dean is concerned only with being unconcerned, not getting hung-up, always changing, and always doing what he wants. Though Dean is uninterested in domestication, everyone misplaces hope in him which has tragic consequences on everyone, including him.
The last sentence of the novel shows that Sal now sees how Dean is like his own father and Sal can now, after Dean’s abandonment, relate to Dean in his experience of being forsaken by a father.
“The last time I saw him it was under sad and strange circumstances. Remi Boncoeur had arrived in new York after having gone around the world several times in ships. I wanted him to meet and know Dean. They did meet, but Dean couldn’t talk any more and said nothing, and Remi turned away.” Remi is earlier described as being “fat and sad now, but still the eager and formal gentleman, and he wanted to do things the right way, as he emphasized.” The meeting of Dean and Remi seem to be the two sides of Sal trying to reconcile. The constantly traveling wayfarer with no capabilities of regret and responsibility meeting the formal gentleman who wants to do things right. These two sides of Sal have no way of resolving and in the end, Sal chooses to go to the concert with Remi despite his desires to do otherwise. By now, he has realized that a life of being with and like Dean is empty so he chooses the “right way.” Dean does not experience this same kind of transformation- turns out you really can’t “teach the old maestro a new tune.”
So now when I read this book, I’m not only filled with the hugeness of heart and adventure, but immense sadness at the closing pages. The irreconcilable Sal and Dean or Sal and other Sal is so uncomfortable. So is the way they split up and one is left thinking, just thinking about the other. And this is just like family to me- people you think about and are tied to, bound to, who are completely and complicatedly different from yourself. And yet, that’s what Sal left to find, and what he found missing in his life. It is hard for me to decide on any few words for family. What I do know is that I am lucky to have a fantastic father. Reading On the Road, I am grateful I don’t feel the need to search or cultivate similar relationships in my life (which I will ultimately destroy with my high expectations) because I have a great dad who loves and supports me. He is the kindest, gentlest, and most inspiring man I know.
Happy Father’s Day,