Book #17: On the Road: The Original Scroll

You may not have the same experience, but reading On the Road: The Original Scroll when you've already read the classic 1957 published version feels a little like brainwashing - as I read it I felt it replacing everything I remembered about the older version. Calling it longer doesn't do the work justice. What you get is a more expansive, free-wheeling and loose-lipped poetic version of the classic "road" novel. Gone are Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise: back are Neal Cassidy and Jack Kerouac, along with William Burroughs, Allen Ginsburg, and a host of other real life characters, filled with jazz music, make out sessions, drugs and alcohol, and a yearning for experience in all its forms: a search for God in the highways and bi-ways of an America that will give a guy an honest chance and where a tank of gas will cost you less than five dollars.

The story of Kerouac's original version of the novel - a single sprawling manuscript comprised of rolls of paper taped together, with no breaks or paragraphs - is by now legend. What is less known is just how readable the novel is in this format. The lack of breaks of the novel constantly propels you forward into the numerous travels Jack takes, whether alone or with his famous friends. The gift of Kerouac, and the reason On the Road is one of my Shelf of Fame books, is his ability to grab you by the collar and swing you along as an integral part, rather than a mere observer, of his adventures. He has a presence as an Everyman, a quality I always he shared in his writing with Nelson Algren, whose prose also belied a sort of poetry of the down and out (although less optimistic that Kerouac).

The fact that the novel does away with the fake names brings a sense of history and immediacy that the original published version lacked. The sense of poetry inherent in the new (or old, I guess) format, along with some a key change in the opening line of the novel, make this new version of On the Road definitive and, in my eyes, a modern masterpiece.