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The Grass Is Always Greener . . . Someplace Else
am 25. Juli 2007
My rating of this book is based on the quality of the writing. If I were to rate the book instead for the appropriateness of what is described, I would rate it as a "zero." Before going further, let me mention that this book describes more immorality, lack of consideration, and disgusting behavior than you will read in five usual novels. If such things upset you, this book will be a poor choice for you to read.
This autobiographical novel is a paean to the hunger and optimism of youth. Everyone you meet in the book is convinced that something much better lies in the next town, in the next relationship, or in the next hit of "tea." The irony of this is nicely explored through the character of Dean Moriarty (Kerouac's friend, Neil Cassady, in real life) who constantly is adrift among the three women he has married.
The uplifting part of the book is found in the way that things somehow work out for everyone involved, even though they lack resources, insight, and appropriate caution. In their giddy gambles on new experiences, they hit the winning numbers often enough to be able to keep coming back for more. Their rootlessness and commitment to experimentation define them in the same way that the Depression defined their parents.
The brilliance of this book is that although you will probably not approve of the irresponsible lives the characters live, you will find yourself deeply involved with them. You will probably also know how they feel. In one vivid sequence, the bipolar Moriarty recreates a memory by almost crashing the car he is driving . . . just to make his point. In the aftermath, he quicky falls asleep, and someone else has to drive.
Youth can be very manipulative, and Kerouac's male pals certainly exemplify that impulsive weakness. Out of money, they steal, beg, borrow, lie, and do whatever it takes to score some. Then, they will spend whatever they have to last them for weeks on a spree covering just a few hours. Moriarty routinely leaves people in strange cities with no money and no friends, and forgets about them. Another pal marries a woman so he can get her to pay for a cross-country drive. When her money runs out in Arizona, he abandons her.
Kerouac's writing captures all of this in a remarkably vivid way. He has a lust for experiences that makes the world fresh and new. For example, he lovingly describes being a cotton picker, one of the worst jobs available at the time. The descriptions of what it is like to listen to jazz are remarkably effective and will probably attract new fans for years. Unfortunately, he also glamorizes drug usage which will also probably generate a lot of new fans for that, as well.
Road trips are a classic way that young men blow off steam in college. Freed from the restraints of being around those who supervise them, life seems more open and everything is possible. The men in this novel are mostly veterans who can get G.I. bill funds for their education. This can help fund road trips across the country, when the urge to travel hits them, tied to either their sense of being footloose or a vague promise of a bed on the other coast. Even after they marry and begin to raise families, the behavior changes little. These are Peter Pans who have adult responsibilities.
While most of what these people do are things that I do not consider commendable, this book took me back to my youth in very fundamental ways. I recalled each and every one of my "conservative" road trips with great relish and delight. I hadn't thought about them in years. I suspect that this book will be a "youth drug" for making you feel like a teenager again, too.
After you have enjoyed the great writing and the reminiscences that the book inspires, I suggest that you think about the exemplary things you did as a young person. How can you share those experiences with others in ways that will inspire them to want to serve goodness in the same ways?
Be open to life's potential . . . and be prepared to help enhance it with your responsible participation.