By Sarah Henderson
What makes the perfect ‘summer novel’? Is it the pounding heat in an Italian villa, gripping romances that linger in your thoughts long after or is it escapism on a page? Whether it is the rolling hills of the Shire or the decks of the Hispaniola, I want to be taken on both an emotional and physical journey in the pages of a summer novel, far away from airport lounges or sunny gardens.
Anyone who has ever read Jack Kerouac will know there is an extraordinary yet inexplicable magnetism about On The Road. This iconic tale of ‘the great American road trip’ defined and indeed encapsulated a generation on the cusp of social change. It is not the America of Steinbeck or Springsteen, but a restless and urgent interim that everyone should explore at some stage in their life. I believe there is no better place to start than in the summer road trips of On The Road.
There is something about Americana that quenches the thirst of avid summer readers. For decades we have turned to the stories of roadside diners, stolen Cadillacs, and expansive deserts and mountain ranges for the openness and excitement that summer brings. On The Road effortlessly combines all that is quintessentially American into many summers of fluidity and uncertainty in the land of dreams and promise. Kerouac’s protagonists – Sal and Dean – help to frame the many adventures of the novel through the ups and downs of their tumultuous friendship. Kerouac’s ‘snapshot’ approach allows a sense of expansive adventure within a limited number of pages, a trait that has made me reach for On The Road on many summer evenings. In these times, when international travel and sojourns with friends seem impossible, On The Road vividly brings you on a reckless journey, hurtling you constantly from the east to the west coast in a matter of paragraphs.
Kerouac…emphasise[s] that it is not so much about where you travel, but who you travel with.
Kerouac goes to great lengths to emphasise that it is not so much about where you travel, but who you travel with, perfectly encapsulating the journey we embark on as readers. Sal’s constant desire for intellectual company and his enigmatic friendships with larger-than-life characters like Dean and Carlo Marx seem to devour the plot more so than the jazz bops and nights on the town. I often wonder, did Kerouac write the novel for the wander-lusting youth he once belonged to? In his first journal entry with ideas for the novel, he intends to write about two young men hitchhiking to California in search of something they can never truly find; whilst Kerouac wrote for the war-weary despondent Beat Generation he was such an important part of, the novel fits perfectly with the restlessness that summer readers wish to ease. In the wake of the current pandemic, the novel acts as a comfort for all of those searching for something that circumstance has placed just out of their reach.
For me, what makes On The Road the perfect summer novel is that it’s semi-autobiographical. The novel allows the reader to dive into the real experiences of two restless youths looking for answers, not the well-planned and formulated lives of fictional characters. Written using the notebooks he had scribbled in during sweltering American summers, Kerouac typed furiously for three weeks on one continuous scroll, sweat dripping from his brow and devouring endless cups of coffee – or so the legend goes. Indeed, it is this cult of the legend surrounding Kerouac and his friends that fills the novel with the promise and excitement that only summer can offer. It is the blend between fact and fiction that brings a vibrancy to the story and encourages the reader to search for, or reflect upon, their own summer adventures. The novel moves the reader from stagnancy to blind optimism, just as Dean transports the directionless Sal from a mundane life to a world of moral ambiguity and recklessness. So, wherever you find yourself this summer, I can think of no better book to transport yourself away with than On The Road.
Image: REVOLT via Unsplash