Why was I surprised to read that On the Road was published fifty years ago? Even when it was published in 1957 it was nearly a decade behind itself, past that pale echo of the Roaring Twenties between WW2 and Korea. The characters—while I’ll usually insist on the opposite, here much of the strength of the often beautiful prose comes from the scattered arc-resisting sense that these are memories of real people—were young and burn burn burning in the late forties, and were pushing forty themselves when new Beat fame required they perform this youthful madness again for the tv cameras.

Do it, do what you wrote about, show me how to do it…

The novel is about chasing, almost catching, overtaking, and realizing you had it only when you were looking elsewhere. “It,” whatever “it” is exactly: moments, in memory stretched to encompass days or years. Every component of that moment is yours, your personal madness or sweetness without referents, without an exact model to match or miss.

Or at least it looks like that in hindsight, when these moments are the models of some true self you match or, increasingly, miss.

On the Road was fifty or a hundred years old when it was written, in that sense. It looks back, recounting brief months that can’t be recaptured, describing friendships with their dismal anticlimactic closes in mind, presenting the narrative “I” with retrospection’s peculiar mix of perception and ego-omissions.

Every one of these things I said was a knife at myself. Everything I had ever secretly held against my brother was coming out: how ugly I was and what filth I was discovering in the depths of my own impure psychologies.

He appeared on talk shows, reading nervously while Steve Allen dribbled on piano, and the public eye saw the ur-Beat, part Neal Cassady, part black-beret’d Hugh Hefner, social and smooth and confident. The advocate of “nowness,” out of his nostalgic work of past nowness, nowness-that-was. Nobody wanting to believe he was only Sal, the shambling follower, one city behind the curve.

 Somewhere between the man, the book, and the archetype is this essence, the feeling that generations of wishful thinkers would preserve like a pinned butterfly. It feels like the easiest fifty years to surmount, beating on, boats against the current…