I first read Jack Kerouac’s On The Road at university, and dutifully wrote an essay about its exploration of the idea of freedom. Now, decades later in 2020, I reread the book, wondering how the old road would look after all these years.
Once again I met up with struggling writer, Sal Paradise, who describes a series of trips around America in the late 1940s. Sal travels, and hangs out with, a changing cast of characters, none more important to him than Dean Moriarty, a charismatic, hyperactive young man, who lives a chaotic life, moving from place to place, job to job and woman to woman. Reading the book a second time it became clear to me that Dean is a charming sociopath, who serves as a natural focus of a story about freedom, because rules do not apply to him, whether those are rules of the road, or of social behaviour in general. For a while a quiet fellow like Sal Paradise, feeling trapped and frustrated with life, can happily follow in a sociopath’s turbulent wake, experiencing a sense of, what appears to be, liberation. But eventually there is a reckoning. There is a reckoning for an individual who lives this way, and for a society which idealises his “virtues”.
At one point in their travels, Sal and Dean visit their friend, Old Bull Lee – a character based on the real life writer William Burroughs. Sal and Dean do not get political in their road-trip philosophising, but Old Bull Lee takes the idea of freedom and makes it an explicitly political thing.
“His chief hate was Washington bureaucracy; second to that, liberals.”
I found myself thinking that if Old Bull Lee were around today, he would be a gun-toting, NRA supporting, red baseball cap-wearing old man, complaining about government overreach in asking him to wear a mask to protect himself and others from coronavirus.
In 2020, the Dean Moriarty/Old Bull Lee idea of freedom, has truly reached the end of the road. For the long haul, you cannot rely on Dean Moriarty or Old Bull Lee. They act only for themselves. The road has changed, and now more than ever, it requires people to support each other and work together. The world’s most powerful country has always had a tendency to downplay such values. Individualistic American society seemed exciting for a while, just as travelling with Dean seemed exciting, right up until that moment when he abandons you when you need him most.
This read through of On The Road was poignant for me. It clarified how much the world has changed since my university days. Even as I turned Kerouac’s pages, the America he describes so vividly, fell away in the rear view mirror.