ON THE ROAD by Jack Kerouac
I was sixteen when I first read On The Road. At that time my three favorite writers were F. Scott Fitzgerald, Nelson Algren and Graham Greene with many crime and science fiction writers vying for a slot.
Kerouac's novel had the same effect on me that George Orwell's Down and Out in Paris and London had. It presented a world I knew something about but so vividly I realized how blind I'd been in my observations of it. I'm not talking here about being Beat (which I wasn't) or being on the verge of starving (we were very poor at times but never that poor) but rather about the sense Kerouac offered of a world that was not only on the margins but was unknown to most people. Algren knew it of course but he came at it as a novelist would. People argue with me but for all the liberties Kerouac took with language (which I liked and admired) On The Road like Orwell's book can be seen as journalism as well. It certainly antcipated and inspired writers such as Hunter S. Thompson..
Kerouac's folks were people of the underclass I'd grown up with. Orwell's people were there because of corrupt and indifferent governments. The Beats were there by choice. In Kerouac there was a larky, naive joy in being the college boy who'd thrown it all over to hang out with the likes of true outsiders Alan Ginsberg and Neal Cassady. The difference was that Kerouac was the somewhat frightened, reluctant reporter along for the ride with two real madmen. It is a coming of age story in the grand American tradition. Not a few of the people we meet along the way have the some of the same traits as Tom Sawyer and Holden Caulfield.
On The Road opened me up to language, poetry, drugs, animal joy, a kind of religion I could understand, Henry Miller and sense of sprawling America I'd never had before. Kerouac was a genius of a kind and On The Road was his masterpiece.