I went to the beach last morning to finish On the Road. I thought it deserved a grand ending, and the best I could think of for its celebration of life was the freedom of the beach. When I look back a few years later at the first time I read it, I’d like to remember it well: I’ll probably not be able to dissociate it from my dissertation, but I will recollect that I had the sea to look at when I’d read the last page and fought back tears at the knowledge that Dean Moriarty had gone forever.
The sun has shone on Brighton mercilessly for the past few days, and the beach was inevitably crowded. But this is what I love about being here: I can find myself a clean corner anywhere and do what I like without having to worry about being molested or ogled at. It was hard to find a secluded spot in that swirling, multicoloured pool of people on the beach, but I managed to claim a small “clearing” with an unobstructed view of the sea. A woman with a husky voice sang the blues at the restaurant behind me- what better accompaniment for a novel about the happy depravity of Jazz Age America?
Pebbles crunched under the weight of innumerable pairs of feet, and a babel of languages and voices rent the still, heavy, humid air. The wind was lost in the depths of the sleepy grey sea- nothing stirred but tongues and limbs. Four rotund, middle-aged men chose my line of view to park their beach chairs in, then proceeded to rub on some lotion vigorously. The seagulls were conspicuous by their absence. I heard their cries in the distance, drowned by loud laughter, but they were nowhere in sight. For once, the enormous number of people on the beach seemed to have subdued their swagger.
Nothing really mattered though, for Moriarty and Paradise were living and experiencing Mexico’s women and bugs. The long road trips through America really took my fancy- I’d like to visit the States just once. But do bits of the country that I dream of still exist? What I want to see is the America of Twain, Steinbeck, Kerouac and Lewis. I want to visit the Boston that delighted Rose Red and Katy Carr, the Rockies in whose shadows lie little villages with their solitary Main Street, the New York that fulfilled Jo March’s literary dreams. I’d like to follow the paths of the rivers with those wonderful, earthy names- the Shenandoah, the Mississippi, the Potomac and the Colorado- and see the gorges and valleys they’ve cut into mountains as old as time. If I could choose only one country in the world to go around in a caravan, this would be it.
Have things changed now? Are those simple villages with their soda fountains now liberally sprinkled with symbols of the consumerism that now seems to embody America? Can I see a canyon without being forced to exit through a gift shop? Moriarty was a lucky man. He lived life on his own terms, even if he wasn’t always doing right by the people who loved him. But his friends seemed happy because he was content. I didn’t like him immediately, slightly put off by his philandering ways. Gradually, though, it emerged that he was a man who had learnt to cast his worries away, and wished the same for the people around him. Moriarty and his friends weren’t always happy. They had their insecurities, they struggled and suffered, but somehow managed to set themselves free in the way that mattered most to them.
I like Moriarty enormously, but I cannot condone his way of life entirely: surely it was selfish to marry women and then leave them to fend for themselves? Those who loved him paid a heavy price for his freedom. They couldn’t have all let go of their own lives and followed him on the road, especially when he left them with children. I would never have found it in myself to be so generous with somebody who loved people passionately for a while, then moved on when he got tired of them or couldn’t get along with them.
One question pops into my head: could a woman have done all that Sal Paradise, Dean Moriarty and the others did, without having been called a slut and blamed for any misfortune that befell her? Even as Moriarty went around impregnating women around the country, it was his helplessness in the face of his nature that was celebrated: his friends advised him to settle down, but when he refused to, found him more girls. I understand it is supposed to be part of the free spirit of Jazz Age America or anywhere else in the world, but I cannot reconcile myself to the joyous hours they spent at whorehouses, picking up women and forgetting them, loving them passionately for a night and moving on for their next spoils. Men have desires, rightly so, and they will only have affectionate barbs directed at them for a rampant exhibition of their virility. Women with desires cannot do what Moriarty did without being called whores or misled eighteen-year-olds. Two things need to be cleared up here. First, a woman who thinks for herself is not a whore. Second, who created the “misled” woman who could never be a partner? Feeling sorry for prostitutes, being kind enough to use contraception, giving them extra money or treating them tenderly doesn’t exonerate those who use their “services”.
Moriarty wasn’t an angel. I don’t think I’ll be able to sort out my conflicting thoughts about him very soon, but I wish I had half his courage and passion for life. I’d like to learn from his unwillingness to worry. It isn’t as if those of us sleeping under the same roof and eating at the same table every night are doing something worthwhile with our lives- in the grand scheme of things, our material successes do not matter one bit. Fevered dreams of ruthless ambition, restlessness and fear lurk in every corner. Why did we demarcate safety and success, wrapping them up in cocoons that require plenty of money and worry to break?
Kerouac created a flawed, genuine human being in Moriarty. He created a good friend in Paradise. When I saw the name “Sal”, I had to keep reminding myself that the story wasn’t an autobiography in the true sense of the word. You see, Kerouac had become Paradise.
I asked fantasy writer Margo Lanagan how she brought such a lot of magic into her writing, and this is what she said: “Immersion, I think, is the answer. Just trying to live the events in all their detail alongside the characters.” Kerouac did this to perfection.