Dean Moriarty: Kind of a Prick

Those who read On the Road and like it tend to have picked i up when they were most receptive: as starry-eyed adolescents who drink it up as, like Dara says, pure wish-fulfillment fantasy. But I wouldn’t go so far as to call Dean Moriarty a “manic pixie dream dude,” or at least not one with a couple more layers of complication there. If you’re reading the book while taking the narrator at face value, and ignoring the fact that these are real people with the names and a couple trivial details changed, then sure. But I think there are other ways of reading the book, and the character, that yield further rewards even once you’re out of the phase where the premise of the book dazzles all on its own.

I started to get a sense of this when I read another Kerouac book, The Dharma Bums. By the time that novel was written, Kerouac was a full-blown alcoholic, and the fact that the narrator had no clue why Allen Ginsberg was angry at him for waking up every morning with a flask of whiskey drove the point home even more: not all was well with Sal Paradise.

Not long afterwards, I read On the Road: The Original Scroll, the single-chapter, single-paragraph, non-fiction tome that Kerouac originally turned into publishers before they decided they wanted it to be a “novel” and “readable.” In that version, the prose is much rawer, the implied homosexuality is explicit, and Dean Moriarty is, of course, Neal Cassaday.

Reading it again, and taking Jack Kerouac as an unreliable narrator, I realized for the first time that Cassaday was actually kind of a sociopath. He seems like a “manic pixie dream dude” if you’re as dazzled by his antics and seeming authenticity (whatever you want to take that to mean) as Kerouac, but I think it’s a much more interesting book when you read it with an eye for the flaws in both Kerouac and Cassaday that the former never acknowledges.


4 Responses

  1. On the Road remains my favorite book, but I’d be surprised if most people failed to pick up on the flaws in the characters. Yes, their experiences over the course of the book seem like they would be a ton of fun, but Dean Moriarty always seemed to me like the kind of guy who would be a lot of fun to hang out with for a while but someone you’d hate after too long with. For me, one of the best scenes in the book is Dean standing alone in New York talking almost incoherently, being consumed by the same madness that drives his and Paradise’s adventures, while Sal drives off with his friends, having realized that being around Dean for too long isn’t healthy for him.

    Also, I really enjoy Kerouac’s later books precisely because, although he never admits it, the alcoholism and manic depression implied in the thinly fictionalized versions of himself become more and more overt as he moves towards his ultimately lonely and pathetic death before he was even 50.

  2. @Pat:

    That’s an intresting perspective. I’m reading Desolation Angels right now and there seems to be several points in the first part of the book where Kerouac at least implicitly reveals the awarness of how sad his life is at that place and time, especially when he’s doubting the Buddhist Philosophy that he had embraced.

    There’s one episode in the book where he’s walking with Peter Orlovsky (Simon) and it seems that the whole purpose of the chapter is just so that Kerouac can express his disgust at Orlovsky’s idealism because it reminds him so much of his own idealism that he had in On the Road.

    At least, that’s my take on it.

  3. Also a prick and kind of a sociopath: Jack Kerouac.

  4. If only more people could read this.

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