When is a Bildungsroman not a Bildungsroman? (That may be the only time in my life that I use that word twice in the same sentence.) On the Road strikes me as a coming-of-age novel in some ways. Certainly the narrator, Sal, progresses somewhat in the course of the novel’s five sections, eventually driving off with the semi-respectable Remi and leaving Dean Moriarty to hoof it. Yet Sal’s “progress” or change is decidedly uncertain. He famously closes the novel with a three-fold memory of Dean: “I think of Dean Moriarty. I even think of old Dean Moriarty, the father we never found. I think of Dean Moriarty.”
Sal might be said to be coming of age, beginning to have success with his writing and effecting a slight bit of consistency in life. In choosing Remi over Dean at the end, Sal seems to be putting into action his statement at the end of Part Four when Dean abandons him, during illness, in Mexico City: “When I got better I realized what a rat he was.” The surprising thing, however, is how long it takes Sal to reach this conclusion. That Dean has fathered four children by two women and has taken up with a third makes little impact on Sal. That Sal has not put his childhood criminality behind him does not touch the narrator. This is a character who cannot be trusted, yet Dean cannot let go of his fascination for him.
In fact, at the end of the book, Sal has put thousands of miles behind him with nothing of consequence to show for it. In fact, he really has nothing at all to show for it at all. Sal flits from city to city, working just enough to support his meager lifestyle. He drifts from woman to woman, with all the commitment of a mosquito. All through the book, we see Sal turning from honest work, taking advantage of the established, productive people who make his vagabond life possible.
What neither Sal nor Kerouac nor the thousands of readers who have seen Sal as some sort of heroic figure fail to recognize is the unreal world that Sal imagines and attempts to inhabit. Titling his book, On the Road, Kerouac fails to account for the impossibility of a road story without someone building the road. Dean and Sal cannot make their L.A. to Chicago run without the Cadillac people building that fine car, Texas oilmen pumping and refining the gasoline, and much more. You can’t go on the road without a road.
Much has been made of the importance of jazz in the subject matter and the shape of On the Road. The life that Sal describes in these pages seems like a jazz improvisation. Sal describes the jazz ethos well:
Something would come of it yet. There’s always more, a little further–it never ends. They sought to find new phrases after Shearing’s explorations; they tried hard. They writhed and twisted and blew. Every now and then, a clear harmonic cry gave new suggestions of a time that would someday be the only tune in the world and would raise men’s souls to joy. They found it, they lost it, they wrestled for it, they found it again, they laughed, they moaned–and Dean sweated at the table and told them to go, go, go.
Performed well, jazz can be an amazing art form. Improvisational art is good; improvisational life is not so good. The worst thing that happens when the jazz combo “lost it” was a musical train wreck, but Dean and Sal’s lives have left behind exploited and abused people.
Before we celebrate the free-living spirit that animates Kerouac’s fiction, before we see him as a romantic force for the twentieth century, we should remind ourselves that actions have consequences. Literature is littered with characters who do things far more damaging than what these two characters have done, but rarely does an author (and his narrator) seem so clueless at the end of the road.