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Literature / On the Road

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Road Trips! Drinking! Poverty!

"Slim sits down at the piano and hits two notes, two Cs, then two more, then one, then two, and suddenly the big burly bass-player wakes up from a reverie and realizes Slim is playing "C-Jam Blues" and he slugs in his big forefinger on the string and the bog booming beat begins..."
— Part of one of the many sentences in On the Road

On the Road is a 1951 novel by Jack Kerouac. It is considered to be the masterwork of The Beat Generation, along with Naked Lunch and Howl (1955). The narrative takes place between 1947 and 1950. The book was not published until 1957.

It is semi-autobiographical and relates events from the time Kerouac spent traveling and occasionally hitchhiking from coast to coast. However, because of legal reasons, the main character is actually an Author Avatar named Sal Paradise who is a semi-impoverished writer and recent divorcé. It also details his friendship with the increasingly crazy Neal Cassady (whose name has been changed to Dean Moriarty) and other writers of the Beat Generation such as William S. Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg who also show up with different names.

The original manuscript was written in one long scroll with no paragraph breaks whatsoever. It was finally published as "The Original Scroll" in 2007, restoring many references to sex, people, drugs, crime, and the relationship between Neal Cassady and Allen Ginsberg, which were all censored when the book was first published.

On the Road has had a huge influence on modern culture with such personages as Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison and Hunter S. Thompson, among others, citing it as an inspiration. It is also considered one of the quintessential American Road Trip Plot novels, but then again, so is Lolita.

Peculiarly for the "quintessential American road novel", an abortive first draft of the novel was found among Kerouac's papers... written in his native Quebecois French.

It was finally adapted into a movie in 2012 — the earliest attempt to adapt it was to have starred a young Marlon Brando. The film stars Garrett Hedlund, Sam Riley, Kristen Stewart, Alice Braga, Amy Adams, Tom Sturridge, Danny Morgan, Elisabeth Moss, Kirsten Dunst, and Viggo Mortensen.

Not to be confused with Cormac McCarthy's The Road.

On the Road contains examples of:

  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: Camille and Marylou for Dean.
  • Author Avatar: Sal Paradise is Jack Kerouac. Also, Dean Moriarty is fellow Beat writer Neal Cassady, Old Bull Lee is William S. Burroughs, and Carlo Marx is Allen Ginsberg. Kerouac uses avatars in virtually all of his novels, although for legal reasons, the names are changed from book to book. As a result, in The Dharma Bums, Kerouac is named Ray Smith, and in The Subterraneans, he is named Leo Percepied.
  • Basement-Dweller: Well, Sal still lives with (and sometimes off) his aunt.
    • When he is home, that is.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Sal and Dean part on fairly tense terms, but Sal has good memories of their adventures and Dean decides to reconcile with Camille and their young daughters and be a better husband and father.
  • Catchphrase: "Yes!"
  • Chick Magnet: Dean gets with multiple women and marries three times. He does change in the end, however.
  • Cloudcuckoolander: Dean. So. very. much.
  • Crazy Homeless Person: To an innocent bystander all the main characters can seem this way.
    • Although, there are actual homeless people... who may or may not be crazy but are, at the very least, slightly unhinged.
  • Depraved Bisexual: Dean is a hedonist and a user, and it's never clear if he's just using any of his partners.
  • Former Teen Rebel: In the end, Dean becomes this, deciding to go back to San Francisco and rebuild his relationship with Camille.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: Subverted. Gay is occasionally used to mean happy but many chapters, especially those in San Francisco, mention "queers" very clearly derogatorily referring to gay people.
  • House Husband: Because of a series of almost comically timed and very karmic events... Dean
  • Homoerotic Subtext: Just how attracted Sal is to Dean remains ambiguous, but they do share an intense bond and share women. Even in its earliest, heavily censored edition, the novel's same sex content was groundbreaking.
  • The Mad Hatter: Dean.
    • He's so uninhibited that, when seeing him running naked through the desert, people have thought that he was a hallucination.
    • "Yes!"
    • Slim Gaillard, who has the tendency to append the word "ooroni" to the end of his words.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: The above mentioned Original Scroll draft is also notable because none of the names have been changed.
  • Hello, Sailor!: Many of the scenes in San Francisco make passing mention of this. Justified due to the time this book was written, San Francisco had two major military bases along the outskirts of the city in Treasure Island and The Presidio.
  • Nude Nature Dance: Dean (of course) and in the middle of the desert no less.
    • Also, Sal and Marylou sit naked in the front seat of a car with Dean (again!) at one point.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: In the scenes of San Francisco, Sal usually calls it "Frisco", a nickname mostly used by tourists.
  • Random Events Plot: Pretty much the whole book is driving from one city to the next and recalling what happened. Later Kerouac books follow much more conventional plot structures.
  • Perpetual Poverty: Sal and his friends especially when on the road and often otherwise. However, they usually manage to scrape by.
  • Road Trip Plot: This book is often considered one of the great road trip novels of all time.
  • Roman à Clef: Loosely relates the random travels of Kerouac during a period of his life. All the names were changed, but many famous beat writers appear, and the book is said to have defined the The Beat Generation.
  • Running Gag: Dean's "dirty" (as in pornographic) deck of cards in the later part of the book. It first shows up when Sal visits Dean while he's living in New York. Later, Dean takes it out at a Denver party and says he can tell fortunes with it. It's mentioned again in the last section when Dean says he used it to play cards with men on the trains he hitched.
  • Spicy Latina: Averted, one chapter discusses how Sal briefly dated and lived with a Mexican waitress in California, but she doesn't have any stereotypical personality traits.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Ed Dunkel's wife Galatea gives one to Dean in one of the later sections of the book, pointing out that he basically just uses people for money and fun and then tosses them aside. She also calls him out for his behavior towards Camille, especially the fact that’s he’s leaving her to deal with two kids alone with little money.
  • Two Guys and a Girl: Dean, Sal and Marylou. A calmer version of the trope: Dean wants Sal to have Marylou after the road trip and insists on watching them have sex to see how well they get along, but Dean just isn't really into it. Although he goes through with it, he would rather spend quiet time with Marylou alone. When it's decided that Dean and Marylou will continue their relationship after the journey, Sal doesn't mind.

Alternative Title(s): On The Road