Why Are the Endings in Beat Literature Such Bummers?
There are many commonalities shared by Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test
and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road
, and although they may also be distinctly different from each other in terms of prose style and the goals and philosophies underlying these two works’ respective road trips, it makes sense to group them together and notice parallels between them, which may help shed light on the motives and attitudes of the remarkable countercultural phenomenon of the 60’s known as the Beat Movement and enable us to arrive at a deeper understanding of how stereotypically “Beat” activities ultimately affect their participants and the world around them.
A very interesting point of comparison between Acid Test
and On the Road
is the way in which these two books end. In the closing pages of Kerouac’s masterpiece, the reader gets a sense of longing, even possibly of regret, from Sal Paradise as he leaves Dean Moriarty behind in body, if not in mind: “…and nobody, nobody knows what's going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old, I think of Dean Moriarty, I even think of Old Dean Moriarty the father we never found, I think of Dean Moriarty.” Acid Test
’s conclusion, on the other hand, features Kesey and Babb’s refrain of “we blew it” over and over. Both ways of wrapping up the respective stories leave a peculiar aftertaste—I found both conclusions strangely unsettling. For one thing, throughout the narrative of Acid Test
one gets the impression that the pranksters are having a positive impact, succeeding in their goal of enlightening the youth and opening minds. Similarly, after all the adventures Sal and Dean share, Sal finds himself, to some extent, and takes his own path confidently independent of Dean…and yet his memory haunts him.
Why do both of these books end on such iffy notes? These stories are not tragedies—they are exciting adventures usually filled with fun times and positive vibes. I want to suggest that both these endings are symptomatic of both protagonists’ end-of-trip blues and re-connection to the square world. Despite the phenomenal exhilaration of their respective road trips, the very nature of their phenomenal journeys sets them up for a massive letdown upon reintegration to the square way of life: the fact that both journeys were fundamentally about “unplugging” from societal norms could only lead to a shock and letdown when they returned to “real life”. All good things come to an end, and once you get a taste of the free life on the road and realize what you had been missing, it can be extremely painful to return to the way things were before. This wakeup call may help explain why the books end relatively negatively—to showcase an unintended yet inevitable consequence of opening yourself up to new people, places, experiences and substances.