But in reading this book after 50 years, I’m struck by the children left behind. Dean “had four little ones and not a cent, and was all troubles and ecstasy and speed.” We learn about two addicts: “Their food bill was the lowest in the country; they hardly ever ate; nor did the children—they didn’t seem to care.” Sure. “Johnny, seven years old, dark-eyed and sweet,” appears in a tent where the adults get drunk and two of them decide to have sex. One asks, “What about Johnny?” The other says, “He don’t mind. He’s asleep.” But Johnny wasn’t.
Sal’s aunt, who enables his travel, reminds him of the children: “Those poor little things grow up helpless. You’ve got to offer them a chance to live.” Sal honestly says, “I had nothing to offer anybody except my own confusion.” The same could be said of On the Road generally, but The New York Times called Kerouac the “avatar” of the 1950s beat generation and his novel “the most beautifully executed, the clearest and the most important utterance yet made” by those nihilistic rebels.
Kerouac’s buddy Neal Cassady died in 1968 after overdosing on barbiturates. Cassady left this advice to posterity: “My kids are all screwed up. Don’t do what I have done.” Kerouac’s last paragraph in On the Road includes this: “So in America when the sun goes down and I sit on the old broken-down river pier watching the long, long skies over New Jersey, and sense all that raw land that rolls in one unbelievable huge bulge over to the West Coast, and all that road going, all the people dreaming in the immensity of it … and tonight the stars’ll be out, and don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear?”
Kerouac, not grasping God’s reality and changing his life, died in 1969 at age 47 from an internal hemorrhage caused by cirrhosis.
FIVE YEARS AFTER On the Road, John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley: In Search of America became a No. 1 bestseller. Its style is very different—short sentences, crisp writing—and the narrator is mature: Steinbeck, already famous, would soon win the Nobel Prize in literature. But some of Steinbeck’s criticism of America, oddly enough, parallels Kerouac’s.
Steinbeck, at age 58, said he was traveling because “I had not felt the country for twenty-five years … heard the speech of America, smelled the grass and trees and sewage, seen its hills and water.” He started in New York where Kerouac ended and headed out in a pickup truck with a camper top and his 10-year-old French poodle, Charley, who often seems more mellow than his master. Steinbeck, anticipating the movie The Graduate (1967), quickly bemoans a Maine motel where “everything was done in plastic—the floors, the curtain, table tops of stainless burnless plastic, lamp shades of plastic.”
Steinbeck yearns for authenticity and adventure. He hates seeing “two water tumblers … sealed in cellophane sacks with the words: ‘These glasses are sterilized for your protection.’” He hates seeing across a toilet seat “a strip of paper with the message ‘This seat has been sterilized with ultraviolet light for your protection.’ Everyone was protecting me and it was horrible.” He describes one restaurant “with simulated leather stools. … Everything that can be captured and held down is sealed in clear plastic.” Another “was all plastic too—the table linen, the butter dish. The sugar and crackers were wrapped in cellophane.” (Why so much whining?)