Matt Mueller takes a peek at the gay underbelly of On the Road
Sixty years ago, Jack Kerouac spent three mad weeks typing out his stream-of-consciousness ode to the road trips across America and Mexico he’d taken with his priapic, Benzedrine-addicted friend Neal Cassady. Written on a single sheet of paper taped together into a 120ft- long, rolled-up manuscript, Kerouac called his confessional outpourings On The Road.
He always hoped Marlon Brando would play his alter ego Sal Paradise in a film version, but it took decades before Brazilian director Walter Salles finally achieved what many deemed impossible with his reverential adaptation starring Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund and Kristen Stewart.
For its time, On The Road’s graphic passages of drug use and sex, both gay and straight, were shocking. Along with William S Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg – who both feature in the book – Kerouac became a pioneer of the Beat Generation, capturing the bohemian spirit of a group of adventure-seeking nomads rejecting bourgeois conformity.
Chief among them is Dean Moriarty, the narcissistic life-force based on Cassady. In the book, Dean/Neal (captured brilliantly in the film by Hedlund) is frequently described as being naked or scratching his balls and, although Kerouac never mentioned sleeping with him, his romantic attraction is obvious.
It’s probably why Kerouac outlined Cassady’s bisexuality so plainly. Early on, he describes being in the room as Ginsberg and Cassady begin their ‘mad’ affair: ‘I heard them across the darkness and said to myself, “Hmm, now something’s started but I don’t want anything to do with it”.’ Cassady is conflicted, too, growing tired of ‘queerness’ and calling New York a ‘frosty fagtown’. One of the novel’s most infamous episodes takes place when Cassady attempts to hustle the driver of a ‘fag Plymouth’, fucking the older man in a motel. Kerouac writes about feeling ‘nonplussed’ as he sees Neal ‘handle the fag like a woman… and give him a monstrous huge banging’; Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries) plays the scene with a similar disapproving prurience that’s disappointing to watch but faithful to the spirit of Kerouac’s novel.
This led one biographer to brand Kerouac a ‘homophobic homoerotic’, a guilt-ridden Catholic concealing his bisexuality through gay-bashing on the page. Indeed, Kerouac is forever banging on about ‘fairies’, ‘fags’ and ‘mincing queens’, despite having had multiple gay trysts with Burroughs, Ginsberg and Gore Vidal. But despite the ambivalence, you have to credit Kerouac for showing gay culture at a time when such portrayals were rare, and admire Salles for finally getting onto the big screen a novel that Time magazine deemed one of the 100 greatest of the 20th century.