In praise of Kerouac’s roman candles

On The RoadWhen I left home for my junior year abroad in what was then West Germany, I included a copy of On The Road among my belongings.  It was a Signet paperback edition and cost all of $2.50 at the local Caldor or Waldenbooks.

I’d never read the book; I suspect someone I knew had recommended it as àpropos since I was embarking, at age 19, on some adventures of my own, albeit ones that would play out in the university town of Tübingen and environs and not on the highways and byways of the United States.  [I have to say that I feel fortunate to have spent that year abroad at a time when the world was a much bigger place, when there was no Internet/no cell phones/no text messaging to connect me to familiar people, places and organizations….the immersion in a different language and culture was thus very deep.]

One day, not long after arriving in Tübingen, I was sitting in a hallway of one of the university buildings waiting to meet with a chemistry professor whose course I planned to take.  I had just recently started On The Road and had it with me, in my backpack.  I decided to read while I was waiting, and on page 9 I encountered this:

photoThis sentence bowled me over–I’m far from alone, as it’s probably the most widely quoted line from On The Road, if not Kerouac’s entire oeuvre–and I underlined it then and there, sitting in that hallway.

The passage thrilled on two levels.  First, the words themselves: the alliteration of ‘danced down the streets like dingledodies’ and ‘spiders across the stars’; the pleasing sound of ‘shambled’ (which I think was probably a new word for me at the time); the repetition–four times–of ‘mad’; the popping sound of ‘pop’ at the end; the use of an exploding roman candle as a metaphor for a particular kind of person.  Second, and on a deeper level, was the exciting notion that such a person–such people, plural!–could exist outside of fiction: real people, that could dazzle and inspire with their passion (‘mad to live’, ‘desirous of everything at the same time’) and their words and ideas (‘the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing’).

Those are people whose paths I’ll always enjoy crossing.

Son of Lowell, Massachusetts: Jean-Louis Kerouac, aka Jack (1922-1969)
Son of Lowell, Massachusetts: Jean-Louis Kerouac, aka Jack (1922-1969)


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