“I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up. I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won’t bother to talk about, except that it had something to do with the miserably weary split-up and my feeling that everything was dead...”
Sal Paradise is the narrator "On the Road" and the persona of its author, Jack Kerouac, in this loosely autobiographical book which is often considered the canonical Beat Generation novel. Sal is a scholarly writer who lives with his aunt in an apartment in New York City... until he goes off a series of crazy road trips, which account for the plot of the book.
Only two differences between the author and his avatar come to mind. First, obviously, are their names. Second, is that Sal Paradise is Italian while Jack Kerouac was French-Canadian. These differences are only superficial, however; if you know Kerouac's biography, you already know Sal.
Conforming to a long tradition of American literary protagonists that run away or take off on a whim, Sal is stricken by a rare combination of wanderlust and opportunity that travelers throughout history never dreamed of; he is the premiere pioneer to get lost in a world with mass produced automobiles and a continental interstate highway system. Travel is cheap. The nation is open.
With his best friend Dean Moriarity (the persona representing Kerouac's real life friend Neal Cassady), Sal tears back and forth across the United States while searching for some nameless feeling, a sense of belonging in the rigid face of 1950's suburbanization perhaps, a cumulative desire to have purpose in life, which he defines mysterious as "it." He believes he can discover "it" in many forms: sex, the West Coast, visions, Mexico, Benzedrine, money, and even at one point, a family. Sadly, none of these things sate Sal's urgent need to travel somewhere, anywhere.
Sal offers all those interpretations of what he believes his ultimate goal is, but remains terminally disillusioned. Even after becoming fixated on something and finally achieving it, such as reaching the West Coast, he still feels an uncomfortable tug to continue traveling in search of "it." This allure is enough to cause Sal and his friend Dean to wreck havoc upon themselves physically, mentally, economically and spiritually through their four colossal road trips together while greatly upsetting their friends and family. Each journey across the US means endless nights of partying, alcoholic overindulgence, wild jazz clubs, benzedrine highs, petty theft, womanizing, excessive speeding and a fair dose of hitchhiking.
Sal doesn't think he finds what he's look for in all this, but he continues traveling anyway. My theory is that what Sal is really looking for is meaning in his life, and that he finds meaning by simply traveling.
By taking off to the back roads and highways, Sal finds meaning in the form of a destination. By trying to "get somewhere," he has a tangible goal to give structure his life. The problem is, once he arrives at his destinations, he loses this sense of objective and falls victim to existential angst. At this point, he begins to drink and party until he feels "it" calling him to the road once more. He heeds it, conjures up a destination, starts to travel, and feels like his life has meaning again.
The final section of the novel implies that Sal begins to settle down. He's stopped the heavy partying and has a girlfriend named Laura. When Dean offers to travel and help him move down to Denver, Sal refuses. Since having a girlfriend or being short on cash never stopped Sal from taking off before, it seems that this might be the case...
But, if you know Kerouac's biography, you probably already know what happens to Sal Paradise.