I watched On the Road on one of the cable channels last night because I had writer’s block and couldn’t sleep. It was a pretty terrible movie, hardly distinguishable from dozens of stupid grifter/drifter movies also inspired by Jack Kerouac’s most iconic novel. It’s a weird thing that I haven’t actually read that book. I’ve read everything even passingly related to it. As a serious Grateful Dead fan, I knew about Neal Cassady/Dean Moriarty totally independently from reading Kerouac. I’ve read pretty much everything ever written about Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters. I always had the intention of reading On the Road, but somehow never got around to it.
Still, it seems that I’ve carried around a picture in my head about what the book is about. As soon as I was old enough, I packed up my blue 1982 Ford Escort and left New Jersey for Los Angeles by the southern route. Even before that, I toured the country following the Dead with my own band of Merry Pranksters. I have always understood the call of the road. Maybe I learned it from Bruce Springsteen, who grew up down the road from me in Freehold. Maybe it’s a New Jersey thing. There is a hardly a soul I grew up with who is still living in my hometown. We all had to get out while we were still young.
In any case, the movie version of the book wasn’t very flattering or romantic, and it certainly provided little that I would want to emulate. Both Kerouac and Cassady died grim, early deaths. Were they false prophets? Or did their lives really have the meaning so many have attributed to them?