When I read On the Road for the first time, I didn't care for it much. I didn't exactly hate it, but I was disappointed by it. I had not at that time developed the suspicion of writers and novels alleged to be "saying something" that I now have, but I do recall being puzzled by the reputation--conveyed to me by fellow graduate students, I must say--this novel had of being a radical statement of postwar restlessness, or disaffected youth, or spiritual exaltation, or whatever other urgent "content" On the Road was supposed to offer. I couldn't find any statements at all in it, although the characters certainly seemed restless, occasionally expressed disaffection (but not with the government or what could be conveniently labeled "the culture"), and at times appeared to be in a state of exaltation (frequently drug- or alcohol-induced, but not always). The novels' style, as well, though obviously unconventional, did not at the time fulfill my expectations of what a transgressive style might accomplish.
In short, On the Road seemed rather tame to me, its rebellion more ingenuously earnest than hard-edged, and I read no further Kerouac for many years. Not too long ago, I decided to try reading On the Road again, expecting that I would quickly enough find it the same tepid experience as the first time around, that I would in fact probably stop reading it fairly early on and consign Kerouac permanently to the category of literary disappointments. However, although I can't say I immediately became entranced by it, I did not stop reading it. I did almost immediately judge the novel's protagonist, Sal Paradise, to be a more interesting character than I had previously, when he seemed to be mostly a cipher. Now I saw his restlessness as a genuine craving for experience, not affectation or pretense. At the same time, I found Dean Moriarty a less annoying character than I had the first time around, although I still wouldn't identify his appearances in the novel as necessarily among its highlights. I suspect that the reputation as an "outlaw" text to which I responded impatiently in my initial reading of On the Road, originates in an over-identification with Moriarty, who some readers took to be the novel's most important character. I think Sal Paradise is obviously the main character, and while Moriarty has his role to play in the intensification of Sal Paradise's immersion in experience, he does still too often come off as affected and pretentious, and future critics and scholars would do the novel a service by focusing more on the way his character reinforces the novel's formal and stylistic ambitions and less on his dubious deeds and spurious words of wisdom.
It was precisely the formal and stylistic qualities of On the Road that I eventually found myself appreciating more charitably on this second read. I think I originally experienced On the Road as essentially formless, even though I understood it was very loosely structured as a "picaresqu" narrative ("very loosely" being the characteristic I noticed most). What now seems clearer to me is the strategy by which Kerouac both enlists the picaresque strategy--which is often thought of as a kind of denial of form, although it is not--and fractures it even further to convey an impression of "spontaneous" action that the novel merely chronicles. On the Road invokes the journey motif associated with picaresque, but where most classic picaresque narratives present the journey as a serial, unbroken series of episodes that lead directly to journey's end, On the Road fragments the journey, leaves it off only to pick it up again, the episodes united only by the participation of Sal Paradise, who meets up with and then departs from the various characters who contribute to his effort of "going West to see the country," as he puts it in the novel's first paragraph. The novel thus can be taken as an experiment with the picaresque form specifically, but also as an effective application of "form" more generally.
I never really agreed with the criticism that as a stylist Kerouac at best exhibits a "plain" style or that, at worst, in his dependence on the declarative mode his is essentially a style without style. He does frequently employ the declarative mode, but this approach also prompts Kerouac to long, cumulative sentences that invoke a kind of lyricism:
In Newburgh it had stopped raining. I walked down to the river, and I had to ride back to New York in a bus coming back from a weekend in the mountains--chatter-chatter, blah-blah, and me swearing for all the time and the money I'd wasted, and telling myself, I wanted to go west and here I've been all day and into the night going up and down, north and south, like something that can't get started. And I swore I'd be in Chicago tomorrow, and made sure of that, taking a bus to Chicago, spending most of my money, and didn't give a damn, just as long as I'd be in Chicago tomorrow.
It's true that Kerouac's prose does not much incorporate traditional figurative language--more of which may be what I was looking for in my initial reading of On The Road--but sentence length and structure are as much a part of "style" as metaphor or simile, and Kerouac's style is not just dedicated to moving the story along. This passage doesn't so much move forward as it does spin in circles once the essential action--getting on the bus--is established. It might seem that Sal Paradise is impatient to get beyond the usual recording of scene--"chatter-chatter, blah-blah"--but Kerouac uses that impatience to motivate Sal's creation of an alternative way of writing that mosty avoids fancy phrasing and obligatory dialogue (although Kerouac's novels have plenty of dialogue--it's just not of the ornamental variety) without sacrificing an attention to language to the exigencies of plot. An examination of a passage such as this one also shows that Kerouac was not oblivious to the effects of pace, rhythm, and variety: the short first sentence of the paragraph sets up the expansive second sentence, which is followed by the still-lengthy but more an afterthought final sentence.
Kerouac famously described his method of composition as "spontaneous prose," designed to mimic the spontaneity of jazz musicians. I take Kerouac to be sincere in his desciption of the aims and nature of this method, and it seems to capture the real achievement of Kerouac's fiction. It is dangerous to impute "development" in Kerouac's work, since the publication dates and the dates of composition of his books are so much at variance. (On the Road was written in the late 40s, while the published follow-up, The Dharma Bums, was written in 1957, after many of the subsequently published novels.) However, it does seem to me that in reading Kerouac's novels in the order of their publication it is in The Subterraneans (published 1958) that we really see a more radical version of spontaneous prose. We can see it as early as the novel's second paragraph:
. . .I was coming down the street with Larry O'Hara old drinking buddy of mine from all the times in San Francisco in my long and nervous and mad careers I've gotten drunk and in fact cadged drinks off friends with such "genial" regularity nobody really cared to notice or announce that I am developing or was developing, in my youth, such bad freeloading habits though of course they did not notice but liked me and as Sam said "Everybody comes to you for your gasoline boy, that's some filling station you got there" or say words to that effect--old Larry O'Hara always nice to me, a crazy Irish young businessman of San Francisco with Balzacian backroom in his bookstore where they'd smoke tea and talk of the old days of the great Basie band or the days of the great Chu Berry--of whom more anon since she got involved with him too as she had to get involved with everyone because of knowing me who am nervous and many leveled and not in the least one-souled--not a piece of my pain has showed yet--or suffering--Angels, bear with me, I'm not even looking at the page but straight ahead into the sadglint of my wallroom and at a Sarah Vaughan Gerry Mulligan KROW show on the desk in the form of a radio, in other words, they were sitting on the fender of the car in front of the Black Mask bar on Montgomery Street, Julien Alexander the Christlike unshaved thin youthful quiet strange almost as you or as Adam might say apocalyptic angel or saint of the subterraneans certainly star (now), and she, Mardou Fox, whose face when I first saw it in Dante's bar around the corner made me think, "By God, I've got to get involved with that little woman" and maybe too because she was Negro. . . .
The free-flowing disregard for sentence boundaries is very pronounced here, but this of course does not mean the passage lacks all structure or does not bear up under analysis. The fused clauses and phrases set up their own kind of rhythm, which can be heard if one reads the passage with care. The first three lines encourage us to read without pausing but the forced pause created by the quotation marks around "genial" allow us to catch our breath before moving on through the next two lines and arriving at the inserted nonrestrictive "in my youth." Since Kerouac otherwise so insistently abandons the comma in such a passage, we must assume that the commas here are quite intentional, a way of creating musical effect, a staccato-like phrase that lead to the different kind of variation provided by the quoted words from "Sam." Similar effects are created in the rest of the passage through the use of dashes, which also introduces digressions that reinforce the analogy with jazz improvisation, and additional inserted commas, parentheses, and quotation.
This stylistic strategy seems to me a genuine contribution to literary stylistics specifically and to American literature more generally. It also makes The Subterrraneans itself an important text both in postwar American fiction and American literature as a whole. Combined with the novel's relative brevity (in my copy, 111 pages), the "bop prosody" of The Subterraneans makes it a work at least as close to poetry as to "fiction" equated in the modern era with "storytelling," in which "style" is often enough just another element of "craft" when it isn't disregarded altogether. The Subterraneans is probably just as revelatory of the "underground" culture of the 1950s as anything else written during the era, but it is less likely to be regarded as a work whose documentary value exceeds its literary merit. On the Road will no doubt continue to be taken as Kerouac's signature work, but I now think The Subterraneans will be more highly regarded by future readers as an innovative work of prose.
The criticism frequently leveled at The Subterraneans, that it offers, through the character of Mardou Fox, a severely limited portrayal both of women and African-Americans will probably linger into the future as well, but while it is true enough that the novel's narrator, Leo Percepied, has a view of women and African-Americans constricted by his background and the era in which he lives, his affair with Mardou is inextricably linked to his desire for experience (a trait he shares with all of Kerouac's protagonists), which in this novel means an affinity with the "subterraneans" of the title and an immediate curiosity about Mardou, who most strongly evokes the "Other" for Percepied. The limitations of Percepied's assumptions about gender or race have to be balanced against his acceptance of a way of life not much in accord with the cultural norms his background and the era would have him affirm. I think most readers are/will be able to strike this balance.
One could argue that Mardou isn't really much developed as a character at all, as neither are any of the other characters in this novel, even, to some extent, Percepied. Our sense of knowing them only incompletely, however, is probably an unavoidable consequence of Kerouac's method in The Subterraneans. It is a novel less concerned with the delineation of character than with it narrator's response to his experience and its delineation in language.