Eric Marshall is a graduate student of Professional Writing at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. He writes poetry and is currently working on his first novel, tentatively titled The Sleep Season.
When I turned nineteen in July of 2003, my mother gave me a copy of On the Road by Jack Kerouac. It was a paperback, the cover illustration was of a slick nineteen forties Cadillac limousine surging down a dark blue midnight highway. Having just completed an honors colloquium on the artists of the Beat movement, my interest in the work of writers like Burroughs, Ginsberg, and Kerouac was piqued. I had no way of knowing, however, the dramatic affect that the famous novel would have on my young life.
My first reading of On the Road didn’t begin as the eye-opening, spellbinding experience it would come to be. I struggled with the early chapters, the litany of names, my own ignorance as to which characters aligned with which key figures of the Beat movement. But by the time that Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty made their fateful passage over the border to Mexico, I was enrapt.
What I had discovered was an affirmation of life, a defense against darkness, a resonant cry of rebel freedom that pulsates through American life. You could drop everything and hitchhike to San Francisco if you wanted; you could find God in the beady, sweating eyes of a tortured blues tenor; you could live life at the speed of light, and it could all blow up in your face, but that could also be okay.
Most importantly, though, I learned that I could write wild, untamed things that would set the world on fire for my readers the way that Jack Kerouac did for me.
I made a pact with myself that I would read On the Road once a year, every July, for the rest of my life. My earliest re-reads were attempts to rekindle the burning fire of my first reading, to rediscover the overwhelming sense of possibility opened up to me by reading Kerouac’s work at age nineteen. At first, I was disappointed, discouraged, even. Just like anything else in life, the book just wasn’t the same the second time around.
As the mangled ethics of my favorite characters became more apparent, some of the magical sheen wore off of Kerouac’s prose. The real and palpable sadness of Sal Paradise stranded, broke, and abandoned in a Skid Row motel in Los Angeles came across as more than just a lull before the next great, mystical explosion of the American night. Dean and Sal’s final goodbye felt more final than in my first reading; it was sadder, more complex. What I found was that On the Road wasn’t the same, but then again, neither was I.
I’m twenty-five, now, six years removed from my first reading of On the Road. I still read it every year, right around my birthday. The reading has become somewhat of a benchmark of my personal growth, like how my parents used to mark my height on the frame of the kitchen door when I was a kid. With each reading, I discover something new, about the book and about myself. I don’t live my life like Sal Paradise or Dean Moriarty; I don’t really write like Jack Kerouac.
There are still moments of life affirming catharsis, but I’ve come to terms with the sadness of Kerouac’s story and I’m okay with that. His book serves as a window to myself, to who I used to be. In that way, On the Road is an assurance that I’ll never completely forget the wild kid inside of me. And for that, I am ever grateful to Jack Kerouac.