A trip for freedom.
Publisher: Legend Press
First Published: 2009
Date Reviewed: 7th October 2013
Jack lives a monotonous life. He wakes up in his mother’s house, tries to continue writing his novel, fails, goes out every now and then, rinse and repeat. One evening he decides to eat a dreary kebab in a dreary shop but his meal is interrupted by Neil Blake, a man of a similar age who has led a more colourful, slightly illegal life. Whisked away by Neil’s friendly nature, Jack finds himself at pubs and parties. Then Neil suggests a trip to Scotland.
On The Holloway Road is a clever and well written book, inspired by Kerouac’s On The Road, that deals with the themes of life and freedom. Written in hindsight from Jack’s perspective, the story is slow, aptly lazy in its pace at times, and a little satirical.
The characters are complete opposites, and not supposed to be liked particularly. Neil is impulsive, he dislikes any limitations placed upon him by outsiders, and he is full of charm, but he can be thoughtless and selfish. Indeed he would laugh at being told to think about repercussions – the reader is likely to think ahead and question Neil’s decisions, and it is exactly that action that Neil would denounce. Neil lives in the moment, lives for freedom, has experienced the other side of the coin and sees its flaws. In comparison, Jack has little will, in fact what will he does have is a side effect of his spending time with Neil. Jack is content in his monotony, his typical life that fits neatly into the slot, and though he isn’t happy he won’t do anything to change that.
Jack’s overall dullness is a major reason the book is slow. Rather than an error on the part of the author, the pace is a decided upon element that shows you just how different Jack and Neil are. Neil’s dialogues are fast paced and full of words, as Jack says, but it is the difference in nature that allows the reader to see where Jack’s safe life might be too safe, whilst of course showing that Neil falls a bit too much towards the other extreme. The book is very much a character study as well as a different take on Kerouac.
It is character-driven, and it is plot-driven, yet at the same time it would be difficult to say that there is a plot as such. The plot is vastly in the realm of the book’s themes. Blackman has crafted a commentary, a very sharp commentary that strikes at the heart of current political, social, and law elements that protect/hinder (depending on the way you see it) the people of the United Kingdom. Through Neil and Jack, Blackman shows the limits of the people’s freedom, the limits imposed by the government and councils. There are many scenes where Jack finally lets go a little, Jack the good lawful if boring citizen, and is rewarded by a penalty of the exact type the duo are trying to escape. As an example, a trip to a country park costs them £100 in car parking fines when they get back to the car and notice the fine details of the parking space.
Freedom here is woven into the larger political context. The story shows the differences between someone who is institutionalised, or just used to, the way of the land, and another who isn’t. And of course what is interesting as well as understandable is the way it’s the person who has been to jail that wants to be free, especially as it is a freedom in lifestyle that Neil wishes for (in other words Neil isn’t wanting the ability to go and kill someone). It’s the case that everywhere they go, Neil says they are or should be free. The government soon tells them they aren’t.
Leaving my Figaro marooned in the grass, I walked forward to get a better look. Warnings were being shouted through a megaphone. Acts of Parliament were being invoked. Arrests were being promised. The appearance of fairness, of reason. Disperse now. A chance to avoid arrest.
And if reason failed, as it surely would, then violence would be justified. Protocol would have been followed. The blows of the batons would have legal sanction, while any retaliatory violence would be grounds for prosecution.
Jack is no one without Neil, and indeed it comes as no surprise to understand, through Jack’s words, that he relies on Neil to ‘live’. It’s one of those things you know instinctively, and it just takes Jack’s words to cement it. And as for Neil, it seems that freedom he wants is nowhere – no matter restrictions or not, you get the sense he will always be against something. In this way the ending is very appropriate, the particular ending for him says a lot about the character and what Blackman is trying to say.
To refer to the inspiration, Kerouac’s On The Road is used both behind the scenes, so to speak, and in the story as an element in itself. Jack and Neil listen to the audio book whilst travelling; it is almost a double usage of the work, between the tape cassette and Blackman’s references to it as the author. It forms a lot of the philosophy and quotations are borrowed and reworked so that they fit in with Neil and Jack.
As the book reaches its ending, another clever aspect becomes apparent. The way it is written, the way the story is referenced, makes it seem possible that it could be about Blackman, that it could be about anyone. Twisted into the last chapters is the final resolution – the answer to what happens after the book concludes, there is even a hint as to what happens a lot further down the line. If only Jack takes the chance.
It seems he did, or perhaps he hired Blackman to do it for him as the author clearly knows more than Jack, just as Neil does. Blackman is almost the unbiased third party, the person in the middle of the two.
On The Holloway Road is superb. It is likely to appeal most to British readers, as they will be able to relate to the political details well, but the references to Kerouac and the commentary will interest readers of other nations too. And the theme of freedom is universal as are likely some of the civil elements.
I know the author as a fellow book blogger.
October 11, 2013, 8:53 am
Beautiful review, Charlie! I loved ‘On the Holloway Road’ – it is one of my favourite books. It was nice to know about some of the finer aspects of the novel – like its commentary on contemporary life in Britain – through your review. I loved the first three pages of the last chapter of the book – they were so beautiful. Thanks for this wonderful review. Glad to know that you liked the book.
October 11, 2013, 2:44 pm
Interesting. My daughter has been urging me to re-read On the Road, and for some reason, I’d never thought of looking for an audiobook version. It strikes me that being On the Holloway Road would be quite different; my memory of On the Road is that it’s partly about the vast distances between U.S. cities, as they try to get from New York City to San Francisco. We got custody of the cats when our housemate moved from Laurel, Maryland to a suburb of Los Angeles, because she felt was too many consecutive days in a car for them (they weren’t good travelers).
October 11, 2013, 8:46 pm
This sounds good! I’ll also have to check out On The Road!
October 13, 2013, 5:31 am
I didn’t know the book but it sounds interesting and, over all, different.
I’m not very keen to read On the road, since some people have found it a little boring (my boyfriend, for example), but well, you caught my interest with this one.
October 19, 2013, 4:54 pm
Reading about Jack and Neil seems almost like reading about the same person who has two choices: either stay the same and die a little every day, either from dullness, boredom, or just the fear of living, or go out there and do something to shake free from the lethargy that has taken them over.
I haven’t read the book yet but this review had brought the day I will a little bit closer.