"Whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny car in the night?”
– Carlo Marx (Jack Kerouac’s On the Road)
Since Ed Ruscha’s illustrated version of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road is such a key component of the Modern’s exhibition Ed Ruscha: Road Tested, I decided to read the book. I had heard of it in a couple of English classes, but never read it before and wasn’t entirely sure what to expect.
It turned out to be one of the most interesting books I’ve read in a long time. More importantly, it provided me with a different context and a new perspective on the theme of travel in Ruscha’s work.
On the Road, which was published in 1957, revolves around the lives of two teenage boys, Sal Paradise (the book’s narrator) and Dean Moriarty. Both are dissatisfied with their lives for one reason or another: Sal is frustrated by writer’s block and Dean is trying to escape a bad marriage. The story details the experiences of both characters as they travel back and forth across the country in search of a better life.
As I read the book, I became intensely aware of the dual impulses that inspired Sal and Dean’s cross-country journeys: both expressed a simultaneous need to escape a present condition (often in the form of an unfulfilling job, a deteriorating marriage, or a sense of boredom) combined with an overwhelming optimism that the condition would improve with the next stop. However, once they reached their destination, the same sense of unrest and dissatisfaction inevitably returned, and they hit the road again. It soon became clear that the characters are happiest, and feel most alive, when they are in transit between destinations.
Ed Ruscha’s attraction to the novel is, at first, easy enough to understand. As a 14-year-old boy growing up in Oklahoma, he hitch-hiked to Florida in order to evade rural life and see the world. Like Kerouac’s heroes, there was an element of wanderlust involved in Ruscha’s decision to travel. In his brief synopsis of On the Road in the exhibition’s wall text, Ruscha explains: “[The main characters] steal cars and just want to be on the road the whole time. I’ve always liked that notion.”
But beyond the notion of travel, what attracted Ruscha to Kerouac’s work? In a recent interview with Charissa Terranova for …might be good, he notes, “[Kerouac] got on the track of stream of consciousness, just blurting things out as they came and attacking the world in an unstructured way. I began to see value and hope in that. His use of language coupled with his ideas of just his friends and the fun that they were all having during this period was maybe a metaphor for something I found myself doing at the same time.”
Ruscha also understands Sal and Dean’s paradoxical emotions about their “home” town, as he reveals his own relationship with his own adopted home of Los Angeles: “I love it and hate it, and now I’m back to loving it again. I have mood swings about that city. . . . It’s my life in the place that is disturbing or unsettling. I feel like I want to get out of there but now I’m settled back into it. But I also have a place out in the desert, so it’s a place to get away to.” This conflicting idea of home is also prevalent throughout Kerouac’s On the Road, as the protagonists are constantly in transit to an idealized destination that, once reality sets in, becomes a place from which to escape.
Ruscha’s illustrations coincide with much of Kerouac’s book, incorporating items like sandwiches, jazz references, and car parts. But most significantly, there is a consistent focus on the road itself: photographs of endless blacktop stretching for miles, suggesting that the artist (like the author) concentrates on the journey more than the destination. This journey, and what it means to both men, is the heart of what ties Ruscha’s art and Kerouac’s novel together. As the character Dean Moriarty observed, “This road drives me!”