6/30/2008

On the Road: A Book Review

After we decided to move to San Francisco, I rented a travel documentary about the area — Globe Trekker or some such program. I didn't learn that much from it, really. I think they like to stay away from the tourist spots that everyone has already heard of. They like to find "hidden treasures" and tell everyone about them. They did not go to Fisherman's Wharf, for example, or the Golden Gate Bridge. Of course that's a problem when the reason you're watching the program in the first place it to learn things about your new city that you don't know but everyone else does. So it was kind of a bust.

But one new thing I did learn (if I'd ever known it, I'd forgotten) was that Jack Kerouac and all the Beats lived in San Francisco and hung out in North Beach, and that On the Road is basically Kerouac's travel journal of his trip from New York to San Francisco.

I had never read On the Road, but had always wanted to. It's one of the great novels of the 20th century and the defining work of the Beat Generation (or so it says on the back of my copy). I thought, wouldn't it be kind of cool to read On the Road while driving across the country to California? And that became my plan — for about a week and a half — until the all-day morning sickness kicked in and had me throwing up every day. I opted out of the two-week car trip and chose the five-hour plane ride instead. And I sort of forgot about the book.

In May, after we'd been in San Francisco for about a month, I started looking on craigslist for a book club. I thought a book club would be a nice way to meet some new people. I loved my book club in Brooklyn so I gave it shot. I found one and they let me in. I didn't even have to interview. The second week in June I went to my first meeting. We read a book called Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje of The English Patient fame. It wasn't that great. I don't think the timeline made sense. He had a girl with a limp that developed as a result of her bout of polio circa 1982. Were there any cases of polio in the U.S. in 1982? (Within 60 miles of a major city?)

But the discussion was good and the women in the group seem really nice. One of them is also pregnant. She's about a month behind me and it is also her first baby. So that's kind of exciting. Maybe we can get to be friends over the next few months at book club and then we can hang out some once we both have babies.

About a week and a half ago I got an email announcing the book that we will be discussing in July: On the Road by Jack Kerouac. How convenient. And I already have a copy on my bookshelves.

So I've been reading it. I’m a little over a quarter of the way through, and so far, not that exciting. I'm a little disappointed about it. I was expecting to be inspired, to long for freedom, honesty, and the open road. So far mostly, I wish he were more responsible with his money.
The main character, the autobiographical Sal Paradise, leaves New York with $75. He plans to hitchhike most of the way to his first big destination – Denver, where all of his friends have made their first summer waylay. Sal imagines himself hitching across the country on highway 6 – one straight red line all the way across the map. What he doesn’t realize as he gets off the bus at Bear Mountain State Park about an hour north of New York City, is that all the truck traffic in the United States had already moved to freeways by 1947. Nobody drove on highway 6 anymore. Or at least that’s what he figures after trying to get a ride in a rainstorm for a couple of hours.

He heads back to the city, defeated, and buys a bus ticket to Chicago. He complains about having spent over half his money and a whole day only to come right back where he started. But he comforts himself that by tomorrow night he’ll be in Chicago.

Now that strikes me as a pretty disappointing start to the great novel of discovering America as you traverse its roads and rivers. He sleeps through a third of the country on a wimpy night bus. He doesn’t even try to hitch from Bear Mountain down to the Freeway. He gives hitchhiking a go for about an hour and then gives up, then squanders half his cash to get not halfway and misses all the experiences that he says he’s hitting the road to experience.

The other half of his money is gone by the time he gets to Denver – spent mostly in silly ways. I don’t mind him spending a lot of it on cigarettes and booze. That’s pretty much what he set out to spend it on, so who am I to criticize doing what he’s planned to do? It’s the other stuff. He does hitchhike from Chicago to Denver, so good job Jack. But twice he rents a hotel room early in the morning, sleeps all day, and then leaves in the evening complaining about how much it cost him only to get back out to the road to complain about how hard it is to get a ride at night.

If you are going to pay for a hotel room on your See America trip, why not sleep in the bed you paid for at night and spend the day seeing America?

Or what’s wrong with sleeping in a barn or outside somewhere? If you want to be a hobo so bad, be a hobo.

He does the same stuff after his stint in Denver. He wires his aunt asking for $50. Then spends half of it on a bus from Denver to San Francisco. Kind of lame if you ask me.

Once he gets to San Francisco, he gets a job and starts sending money back to his aunt. This is admirable, I guess, but not necessarily smart. He’s making $50 a week, 40 of which he’s sending back east. Then he’s stiffing his roommates by only pitching in $5 a week for groceries (which they complain about) and spending the rest on beer and smokes. So he's perpetually broke. And now he wants to get moving again but has no money set aside to get going with.

He doesn’t tell us any immediate reason why he needs to send so much money to his aunt every week. He lives with her in New Jersey where he doesn’t appear to pay rent or have a paying job of any kind. So presumably she’s doing okay without his money. She had $50 extra to send him a few months back in Denver, so what's up with sending 80% of your earnings back to her?

That’s where I am so far. I’ve found a surprising lack of description of American towns or landscapes. Also very few character sketches other than his friends whom he knew before he left the east coast. Mostly there are stories of going to bars to drink and trying to “make” women. Pretty much the equivalent of somebody today writing a string of stories of how, “we went out to this bar and got totally wasted.”

I still have 200 pages to go so maybe it gets more interesting. Or maybe it was just a lot more radical when reading it was an alternative to watching The Mickey Mouse Club and Leave it to Beaver. I’ll let you know.


IN OTHER NEWS:
The baby has learned a one–two punch combination and was doing them all weekend. He's also learned to kick on one side of my uterus and punch on the other at the same time, which feels really weird.

As for me, I keep having dreams that I'm back in high school or college and I've forgotten to go to a history class for the entire semester and now it's too late to drop the class and the final is soon but I don't even remember where the class meets. Or, last night, I went to my first class of the day in high school and remembered that we had a really important paper due in the afternoon. But as I'm trying to get the information about what's supposed to be in this paper from a friend, English class has started and I haven't read the short story that we will be discussing right after we take a pop quiz on it.

I've had about five of these dreams over the past couple weeks. Can anyone guess what my subconscious is worried about? If you guessed "being a terrible, forgetful mother who leaves her baby in the car seat on top of the car and drives away," you guessed correctly.

In real life, I missed back-to-back appointments this weekend: one on Friday, one on Saturday. Both were really important, and I just forgot about both of them. And I remembered that I forgot the Friday one before I forgot about the Saturday one. What's wrong with me? Good thing I don't have a car.

4 Comments:

Anonymous brian said...

That sounds like a real American story to me: hatching a big vague plan, making up details as you go along, screwing it up, wasting money, lots of stalling.

3:06 PM  
Blogger thisisntjimmy said...

Have the baby do a few kicks to your subconscious and the dreams will stop.

2:23 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Stop trying to save bullshit, Brian. That's about as American as the fortune cookie. The real American story is about trying to design cars that go to the moon as your hapless but fun loving dad pays you to read books about zombie architects who subtly rape women, live in slums, and build "wacky assed gas stations".

In other news, if you think you're worrying now, just wait until you're delivering. You'll be watching every bloop and bleep like you're British and its some damn 'football' match.

We miss you "4" here in Chicago.

12:38 AM  
Blogger Abbi said...

I have those same dreams! I think it means I want to stay on top of things.

10:17 AM  

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