On the Road
Part II, Chapters 8-11
Sal, Dean and Marylou drive through Louisiana and Texas, stealing food, cigarettes and gas when they can. They see a huge fire in the night, and scare themselves by driving slowly with the headlights off in a swampy forest. Later, in pouring rain, Sal driving, they are forced onto the side of the road by a car driving straight at them. The offending car is full of drunk fieldworkers who want to ask directions. Sal points the way, then realizes that their car is stuck in the mud. He wakes Dean up, and they push it out and continue on, wet and covered with mud. In the day, they pass through snowy ranges and plains. Once, Dean stops and runs around naked in the sagebrush. He persuades Sal and Marylou to strip as well, and they drive along naked for awhile, shocking passing truckdrivers.
At dark, they stop at the El Paso travel bureau, hoping to find ride-sharers to chip in for gas, but with no success. Sal observes Marylou watching Dean with sadness, anger and love. They drive again, and pick up a quiet boy who promises them money from his aunt in California. They continue on through the purple and red mountains of New Mexico, and then Arizona. Sal, who has taken over driving for awhile, stops to pawn his watch, and they are stopped by another suspicious policeman--but the policeman is amused by Dean and lets them go. In Tucson, they stop briefly at Sal's friend Hingham's house to borrow five dollars.
They pick up another hitchhiker: an "Okie" musician whose guitar has been stolen; he promises them gas money from his brother in Bakersfield. As they pass a women's prison, he tells them a story about a man who was shot by his wife, forgave her, and bailed her out of prison, only to be shot again. They pass through a high mountain pass; on the way down, Dean negotiates the curves in neutral--instructing the others which way to lean--and they make it thirty miles without using gas.
In Bakersfield, Dean is overwhelmed by memories, telling Sal details of his old hangouts. Sal tries to tell Dean about being in the railyard with Terry, but Dean is too excited to listen. They get a few dollars from the musician's brother, and continue on to the aunt in California. But--coincidentally enough--the boy's aunt has gone to jail for shooting her husband. They wish the boy well and go on, soon seeing hilly, beautiful San Francisco, and the ocean beyond. After arriving downtown, Dean leaves Sal and Marylou in the street and rushes off to Camille.
Marylou and Sal stay in a cheap hotel. Without Dean there, Sal realizes that Marylou has no interest in him. She goes off with a wealthy man the second night. Walking through the city alone, Sal experiences a strange moment in which he imagines a store proprietess to be his disapproving mother from a past life. He feels a roar in his ears and thinks he feels the presence of numerous past lives, a sensation of bliss and imminent death--but he makes it back to his room, where he feels ravenous and describes at length the delectable smells of food in San Francisco.
Dean comes back, and takes Sal to Camille's for a few days. Dean has a new scheme: selling pressure cookers. Predictably, this doesn't last very long. Sal and Dean go out with Slim Gaillard, going to long, passionate jazz and blues sessions. Sal prepares to go home. Dean is back with Marylou again; Sal is sick of them. The three part, feeling slightly hostile towards each other.
Sal's sorrow becomes stronger: farewells aren't the exciting launching points they were before, but moments of contemplation. Movement--parting and change in life--is not a choice, but inevitable: the "too crazy world vaulting us." There is nothing to be done about it but to accept it, and lean toward the next destination.
Sal's views of the landscape also become less euphoric and more contemplative. Instead of describing definitively, he asks, "what is" the Mississippi? He thinks of what the river is physically, and where it goes. When they drive through the South, the landscape parallels Sal's frame of mind at this time: it is mysterious, dark and deep--even ominous, as when they see the fire at night. There are a lot of cars parked by the side of the road there. It could be a "fishfry"; it might be anything else.
In a way, the road is the only place Sal and Dean belong. Both misfits--Dean in his actions, Sal in his thoughts--the road is where people pass by each other with tolerance. Or at least disbelief: when Dean is jumping around naked at a roadstop, Sal mentions that some tourists see him but don't believe it. Dean and Sal and Marylou can drive naked and shock the truckdrivers, but they never have to be confronted by more than passing reactions, have to answer for themselves. On the road, everything might be a mirage, and there are no consequences to actions (Dean's) or lack of action (Sal).
Also in this section for the first time, Kerouac suggests for the first time that the women in this story might have deep and complex feelings. He describes Marylou watching Dean intensely, with an "envious and rueful" love-a surprising observation of someone who up until now has only been presented as a compliant bimbo. It suggests that others in this story may be experiencing something quite different from what Sal describes. (For one woman's perspective of this time, see Carolyn Cassady's ["Camille's"] memoir, Off the Road.)
Sal's moment standing on the sidewalk in San Francisco, feeling bliss, imminent death and an awareness of past lives, should be understood in the context of Kerouac's later interest in Buddhism. Naturally, the ideas of detachment from the world, solitude and peace appeal to Sal, who is in a kind of spiritual pain, but these qualities are in direct conflict with the unabashed Hedonism and impulsiveness that he admires in Dean. Kerouac would continue to struggle with these conflicting impulses in his later work, and in his life as well.
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