Even when I first read "On the Road," as a teenager in the 1970s, the core of its action -- driving, talking, smoking dope, listening to music -- was what my friends and I did every day. It took me years to understand what the book was getting at, which is the bittersweet ephemerality of everything, the idea that to "know time" is to know ourselves as at time's mercy, which makes its frantic movement less exuberant than desperate.
That is Kerouac's message, the message at the heart of all his fiction, made explicit by the ancient hitchhiker who late in the novel tells Sal to "Go moan for man." Tellingly, this idea is absent from the movie, which is about not desolation but a kind of studied cool instead.
To be fair, such a pose has its roots with Kerouac also -- or more accurately, with Cassady. This is one of the most common misreadings of "On the Road," that, in the words of Kerouac's friend, the novelist John Clellon Holmes, "[People] kept mixing Jack up with Dean Moriarty, they kept thinking he was like Dean Moriarty -- in other words, Neal Cassady -- and he wasn't."
No, Kerouac was the hanger-on, the chronicler, writing it all down as a way of reckoning with his vulnerability.
All these years later, this is what lingers about the novel, its air of universal longing, of a human being adrift in a universe that he doesn't, that he will never, understand.
I didn't get this as a teenager. It was only when I reread the novel in my late 20s (Sal and Dean's age) that I began to recognize what Kerouac had in mind. Twenty years later, I read the book again on its 50th anniversary and saw it through yet one more filter -- let's call it the filter of the other side. By then, I was nearly old enough to have been Sal and Dean's father, as old as Kerouac and Cassady had been when they died.
The myth about "On the Road" is that it is a book about, and for, young people, which the film, with its hipster diffidence, perpetuates. But youth and time, as Kerouac understood, are very different things.
No, the truth of the novel is more complicated, for, like all great books, it changes on us every time we read it, depending on who and where we are. The first time I encountered it, as a kid, I was disappointed; the second, as an adult, I identified. But it was this most recent reading that revealed the book to me: a desperate yawp in the face of mortality, "like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars."