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"the world that [they] trembling stepped out into in that decade was a bitter, gray one".
In his article, "Scratching the Beat Surface," he describes the time as "locked in the Cold War and the first Asian debacle," in "the gray, chill, militaristic silence,...the intellective void...the spiritual drabness".
This is the world in which Kerouac takes his journeys that become the material for On the Road. Sal Paradise, the narrator of On the Road and the character identified as Kerouac's alter ego, is a literate keeper of American culture. We become intimately aware of an elusive narrator, but fixated upon the epic hero of the novel, Dean Moriarty. The narrator tells us in the opening paragraph that "with the coming of Dean Moriarty began the part of [his] life you could call [his] life on the road". Dean is the instigator and the inspiration for the journey that Sal will make, the journey that he will record.
The characters are introduced to us in brief vignettes, in a way reminiscent of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales; New York City is the starting point, and Sal wants us to understand the people we will be dealing with. The arrival of Dean is the catalyst, Sal describes him as "simply a youth tremendously excited with life". He also sees "a kind of holy lightning...flashing from his excitement and his visions". When Dean meets Carlo Marx (a pseudonym for Allen Ginsberg), Sal's closest friend in the city, Sal tells us that a "tremendous thing happened", and that the meeting of Dean and Carlo was a meeting between "the holy con-man with the shining mind [Dean], and the sorrowful poetic con-man with the dark mind that is Carlo Marx". Sal remarks that it was in their meeting that "everything that was to come began then". Carlo tells Dean about the friends around the country, their experiences, and Sal is telling us that he is following them "because the only people for [him] are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live" and so on.
Sal describes Dean's criminal tendencies as "a wild yea-saying overburst of American joy something new, long prophesied, long a-coming". The early descriptions of Dean establish a religious motif; people and their personalities are regularly referred to as holy, or prophesied. Dean is "a western kinsman of the sun", and this pagan comparison is yet another supernatural moment in the description of Dean Moriarty.
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Sal's journey continues with his arrival in Chicago. He dates the narrative at 1947, marking it as a specific era in jazz history, "somewhere between its Charlie Parker Ornithology period and another period that began with Miles Davis", and it inspires Sal to think of his friends "from one end of the country to the other doing something so frantic and rushing about". Sal doesn't say what they are frantically doing, and this is the premise of the narrative. Sal is hardly immune from this. After napping in Des Moines, he wakes up, "and that was the one distinct time in [his] life when [he] didn't know who [he] was". He continues,
Why Sal chooses to keep moving westward, and later, eastward, is a central question. Something about these temptations, or opportunities, must be lacking in order for Sal to pass them by. Why does Sal not find it in the Americana that he encounters? his journey is something larger and something spiritual. As was stated earlier, Dean epitomized the instinct to reject the common life.
In San Francisco, Sal confronts social expectations. He takes a job as a night watchman at a boarding camp for merchant sailors waiting for their ship. When he finds the work distasteful he tells his supervisor that he "wasn't cut out to be a cop". In response, Sal is reminded that "it's [his] duty [he] can't compromise with things like this". Sal's aversion to commitment and duty ensure that he does not hold this job for long, and he is soon on the road again, where he meets one of his biggest temptations.
Her name is Terry, and he meets her on the bus to LA. She is a Mexican who has run away from her husband. They spend "the next fifteen days together for better or for worse". Sal spends the better part of a week with Terry and her family in a migrant worker's camp. The agrarian lifestyle initially appeals to Sal, and he says that he "thought [he] had found [his] life's work". The economic reality sets in and Sal begins to pray "to God for a better break in life and a better chance to do something for the little people [he] loved".
The next significant character that Sal meets is the "Ghost of the Susquehanna" His role "is to complete the triad" (Goldstein) of symbolic structure in the narrative.
Sal's continued journey on the road is entwined with the making of Dean as the epic hero: Dean Moriarty, the "son of a wino". Dean has spent time in prison, for stealing cars. Sal discusses what effect this experience had on Dean saying, "only a guy who's spent five years in jail can go to such maniacal helpless extremes Prison is where you promise yourself the right to live". Dean's imprisonment, according to Sal, is when his heroic personality was solidified. Prison had the effect of fueling his obsession with the road. What makes him heroic to Sal is his free nature, and his reluctance to tie his spirit to social demands. This self-centered personality causes Dean to "[antagonize] people away from him by degrees". The institution of marriage is particularly difficult for Dean, and by the end of the novel he is "three times married, twice divorced, and living with his second wife". This decline of Dean makes up the second part of the novel, and culminates in the end of Sal's journeys.
Sal's travels erode into disappointment. He slowly becomes more dissatisfied with what he finds on the road, and he begins to look back on his previous travels in a more cynical way. His companions begin to be people from lower classes, old Negroes and Mexican whores. Back in Denver, and very alone, he speaks in verse saying, "Down in Denver, down in Denver/All I did was die". We begin to confront the possibility that this journey and Sal's hero Dean were both failures. After reuniting with Dean, Sal begins to sense Dean's decline and labels him "the HOLY GOOF", when earlier he was called holy in a reverent tone. Dean's abilities falter. When confronted with his abandonment of wife and child, he is silent. Sal explain, "where once Dean would have talked his way out, he now fell silent He was BEAT".
Sal's last attempt at finding an answer to the problems falling around him was a trip through the Mexican countryside to Mexico City with Dean. Upon arriving in the city, he immediately develops dysentery and the final betrayal occurs when Dean leaves him behind, feverish and hallucinating. Sal reflects that "when I got better I realized what a rat he was, but then I had to understand the impossible complexity of his life, how he had to leave me there, sick, to get on with his wives and woes".
The novel ends a year later, in New York. Dean comes back to New York to see Sal and arrange for Sal and his girlfriend to migrate to San Francisco with him. The arrangements to move fall through and Dean returns to the West alone.
Sal closes the novel sitting on a pier during sunset, looking west. He reminisces on God, America, crying children, and the idea that "nobody knows what's going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old", and ends with "I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty".