Paul Maher, Jr., spent seven years researching this book, rivaling the time it took its hero, Jack Kerouac, to research his. Maher grew up near Kerouac's childhood home in Massachusetts and believes he has always been attuned to the literary soul of Kerouac.
The book chronicles all the minutiae of Jack Kerouac's existence from the time when On the Road was a mere sparkle in its author's bleary eye through the incessant traveling that were its substance, to the relatively few days in which it was written. Maher has the benefit of the fact that Kerouac and all his cohorts were prodigious scribblers who felt the need to put descriptions about their experiences on paper moments after they finished experiencing. The broody boy poet Alan Ginsberg, the expansive love object Neal Cassady, the old perennially puzzled William Burroughs, all, like Jack, wrote and wrote and wrote. Maher set it all on a timeline in order to bring back to life the erratic and erotic peregrinations of one of America's greatest writers about America.
Because Kerouac lived in a generation before everyone had cars and computers, he was confined, in his journeys and his writing, to one vast continent and the distance his thumb or a bus could take him each day. He didn't have a precious view of his task – to write a book about being on the road by being on the road seemed to him supremely logical. Though he undoubtedly was a restless man, he never comes across as frantic. He just wanted to find out what would happen next as he yo-yoed from coast to coast. He was not even the hero of his book, autobiographical as it was. That honor goes to Neal Cassady.
Cassady's wife, Carolyn, once wrote of one of Kerouac's many sudden midnight appearances and Neal's greeting him at the door stark naked: "I imagined a drawbridge between me and Neal…enclosing them in their castle of delights and leaving me sitting wistfully on the opposite bank, filling the moat with tears." Kerouac and Cassady needed one another as platonic lovers, two men who longed to inject experience direct into the vein. Cassady was kind of a fool, a hard-loving dude who often had
three or four amours on the boil simultaneously, including a homosexual liaison with Ginsberg. While Kerouac always supported his widowed mother, Cassady flew a wide pattern, robbing Peter or Paul to meagerly support his wife while blowing paychecks on birds in the hand. Cassady has emerged in the judgment of passing time as the kind of irresponsibly irresistible guy that country-western songs are written about, whereas Kerouac was the herald of sub-cultural change, a man of principle, a man of many words. In writing through his adoration of Cassady, Kerouac got famous. Critics didn't eat Kerouac up, but a generation devoured him, carrying his book in their pockets as they sought to duplicate his hitch-hiking pilgrimage.
"On April 2, 1951," Maher tells us, "Kerouac took eight sheets of drawing paper and Scotch-taped them together, end to end, creating one continuous roll that he could feed into his typewriter. He was twenty nine years old…by April 22, Kerouac had completed a novel approximately 125,000 words in length…writing to Cassady, he described On the Road as a novel about 'you and me on the road.'" His finished creation was 120 feet long.
It's been 50 years since On the Road hit the bookstands, so Kerouac is being remembered here and there. It's unlikely that the car-owning, iPod-ing kids of today will try, like some of their parents did, to imitate the peripatetic poet-philosopher in his grand quest. But maybe they will read On the Road and discover some new message hidden in the manuscript Kerouac early on conceived as "two guys hitch-hiking to California in search of something they don't really
find, and losing themselves on the road, and coming all the way back hopeful of something