Sal Paradise: Beat Picaro

The character of Sal Paradise, in Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road, is a complex fusion of the fictional and the real. Kerouac created Sal in his own image and used him as a tool to shine light on the state of America in the aftermath of World War II. Sal is a sort of modern picaro, but with a beat spin. Though he travels through the underbelly of America he sees no evil. The beat part of Sal Paradise shows him the light of God in everything he encounters. This unique combination of the picaresque and the romantic allows the reader to gain a new perspective on the America of Sal Paradise’s time. Sal Paradise shows us the dregs of the world through rose-colored glasses — digging it all the way. When we first meet Sal he has already developed many of the traits of the picaro. Though in his mid-twenties, Sal still lives with his Aunt, who supports him financially. He is an unpublished writer, which more or less means he is unemployed. He is divorced. His time is passed in bars and cold-water flats. This irresponsibility, skirting about the edges of society, and financial instability are all typical of the picaro. Sal steeps himself in the adventures of lowlifes like Dean Moriarty because, as Sal says, “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding.” This wish to follow in the footsteps of those Sal believes are truly living life will later prove itself to be the driving force behind his behavior and his constant need to be on the road. It is out of a desire for experience that Sal first sets out on the road, taking another step in his development towards the picaresque. This action serves both to divide the book into sections and to further illuminate Sal’s character. It is the prolonged journey on the road that shapes Sal’s life — and the novel as well. This clearly fits in with the picaresque tradition of the anti-hero character on a journey that carries him to the edges of society. That Sal embarks on these journeys does not constitute picaresque behavior in and of itself. The situations Sal finds himself in and the people he meets along the way, combined with Sal’s behavior in these situations and towards these people, are what blend together to form a novel in the picaresque tradition. A picaro is a roguish nomad, scavenging the world for the necessities of life and living only to please himself. Sal Paradise perfectly fits this bill. He hops from New York to Denver to San Francisco to New Orleans to Mexico and everywhere in between. He barely manages to scrape by on these trips, supplementing his veteran’s benefit checks with money from his Aunt and various other friends and ladies he encounters. He stays in the homes of acquaintances, straining relationships to their breaking point before disappearing, only to return again once old grievances are forgotten. He takes work only haphazardly, working security with Remi Boncoeur or publishing bits of writing. Stealing is only out of the question when he can support himself without doing so. As Remi Boncoeur puts it while Sal is living with him: “We must cut down on the cost of living.” Sal does all of this so that he may be free to pursue what really drives him — the art of gaining experience. Through the course of the novel Sal leads multiple lives, each one a uniquely singular “episode” of sorts. Sal dives into the lives of others and stays until he feels that he has come to understand the essence of their beings. Then he leaves, going off in search of other life experiences to leech. He cares little about the chaos he causes for the people he leaves behind or where he will end up next. The life experiences are what Sal really craves. His picaresque journey is not one based on the necessity to survive. Sal could just stay home with his Aunt and be perfectly cared for. The driving force behind Sal’s development as a picaro is his lust for knowledge of lives he has not known. He travels the country to consume this knowledge, and once he has folded these new experiences into himself he moves on. These attempts would seem to have been preceded by a similar lifestyle lead by Old Bull Lee. Sal looks up to Bull, as an older, wiser friend, and to Bull’s lifetime of learning: “What he considered to be and called the ‘facts of life’,” made a great impression on Sal. It is with reverence that Sal says, “He spent all his time talking and teaching others. Jane sat at his feet; so did I; so did dean; and so had Carlo Marx. We’d all learned from him.” What Sal learns from Old Bull Lee is that life is full of truths for those who go and look for them. Sal’s journeys on the road are his way of emulating this hero and teacher of the beat generation. The most glaring example of Sal’s utter heartlessness and constant yearning for new experiences comes when he abandons Remi and Lee Ann and encounters Terry at the bus station. His time with Terry is as close as Sal comes to settling down in one place during the novel; Sal’s life with Terry is about as close to a normal relationship as he gets. Everything about their relationship is compressed into a small time span, but we are given an important look into how Sal functions during this particular adventure. Two incidents that occur during Sal’s stay with Terry show us how Sal perceives himself and how he attempts to assimilate the people he meets into his perceptions. The first incident takes place when Sal is picking cotton in the field to earn money to feed his “family”. He sees an old Negro couple picking in the fields with him and begins to imagine their ancestors doing the same work decades before. He soon graduates to imagining himself in the way he sees the Negro couple. He comments that he has found his life’s work. Later, back in the tent with Terry and Johnny, he says: “Sighing like an old Negro cotton-picker, I reclined on the bed.” After one day’s work picking cotton Sal can already imagine himself as a world-weary field worker. Soon after this Sal becomes disillusioned with cotton picking and wires back home to his Aunt asking for more money. The other incident occurs after a group of Okies lynches a man near the camp where Sal is staying with Terry and Johnny. Sal says: “From then on I carried a big stick with me in the tent in case they got the idea we Mexicans were fouling up their trailer camp. They thought I was a Mexican of course; and in a way I am.” Here Sal again shows his need to assimilate himself into cultures that he only barely understands. He actually believes that a few weeks living with Terry has turned him into a veritable Hispanic, that all he will ever need to know about being Mexican has already been made available to him in this short time. A few days later Sal moves on again. He has already taken the one thing he was really looking for in his relationship with Terry: the belief that he fully understands the life she lives and the experiences that she has had. Terry becomes just another character in the sea of faces Sal meets across the country — nothing more. The quest for personality and experience is foreshadowed near the beginning of the novel, when Sal stops in Des Moines on his first trip west. He wakes up in a hotel room, and in a moment of confused truthfulness reveals to us that he does not know who he is. “I looked at the cracked high ceiling and really didn’t know who I was for about fifteen strange seconds. I wasn’t scared; I was just somebody else, some stranger, and my whole life was a haunted life, the life of a ghost,” he says. This is how Sal feels when he is without the presence of another person whose experiences he can latch onto and relate to himself. When Sal is alone he does not know how to think or feel about himself or the world. His callous habit of inserting himself into the lives of others only to disappear soon after is born from a need (not merely a desire) to gather new experiences. To Sal staying at home with his Aunt would be unbearably stifling, as impossible to survive as living without food or water. His body would continue to function without these experiences, but his mind would close down and Sal would become just another dull lifeless citizen, never really knowing or doing anything. This, then, is why Sal follows Dean Moriarty. The unpredictable and the extraordinary seem to spring up around Dean. Sal and Dean are not really friends — at least not in the way “normal” people living “normal” lives might be friends. Dean uses Sal to guide him into his intellectual rebirth while Sal uses Dean to guide him into the underworld. Kerouac makes this knowledge available to us early on when Sal states: “He was conning me and I knew it… and he knew I knew (this has been the basis of our relationship).” When Sal has had enough adventures he heads home to his Aunt and leaves Dean behind. When Dean has no more use for Sal he disappears and leaves him to fend for himself. Dean does not care if Sal is practically starving in San Francisco or on a sickbed in Mexico. In the end Sal cannot be angry with Dean for this, because if Dean was any other way then Sal would have no use for him. Sal will later do the same thing to Dean, leaving him despondent in New York when Sal has finally outgrown his need for the whirlwind that is Dean Moriarty.They key difference between Sal Paradise and the traditional picaro lies in Sal’s outlook on life. The traditional picaro takes a journey through the world and sees only the results of a corrupt or dysfunctional society. The traditional picaresque novel was meant as a didactic satire designed to shine a light on the consequences of the society it explored. On the Road functions more as a celebration of the forgotten people of America than a warning against ending up like them. Sal sees a touch of God in everyone and everything he meets. “Don’t you know that God is Pooh Bear?” he asks in the final paragraph of the novel. In this way Sal acts as a champion for the disenfranchised masses he meets on the road. Sal’s most unique characteristic is his ability to combine the downbeat and the beatific. On the Road is a testament to the human ability not only to survive but to find happiness in imperfect situations.Dean touches on this when he tells Sal, “Someday you and me’ll be coming down an alley together at sundown and looking in the cans to see.”“You mean we’ll end up old bums?” is Sal’s response.“Why not, man? Of course we will if we want to, and all that. There’s no harm ending that way.”

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