Sal Paradise recalls how his “life on the road” began when he met Dean Moriarty, shortly after splitting up with his wife. He had learned of Dean through his friend Chad King, whom Dean had written to from reform school, asking to be taught about “Nietzsche and all the wonderful intellectual things that Chad knew.”
The beginning of the novel establishes the importance of its two main subjects: Dean and Sal’s friendship and Sal’s “life on the road.” Dean seeks out Chad King to learn how to become a writer and an intellectual.
Dean arrived in New York City with his new wife Marylou, and Sal paid him a visit in his “cold-water flat.” Dean looked like a hero from an old Western, and had in fact been working on a ranch in Colorado before marrying Marylou and coming to New York. Sal describes Marylou as sweet but “dumb and capable of doing horrible things.”
For Sal, Dean is associated with the mythical, romanticized past of the West, to which he will soon travel. While he is fascinated by Dean, he is much more critical of Marylou, whom he pigeonholes as sweet but dumb.
Dean asked Chad King to teach him how to write and Chad told him to ask Sal instead, since Sal was a writer. After getting in a fight with Marylou and then fleeing from the police, Dean showed up on Sal’s doorstep one night (he lived with his Aunt in New Jersey), asking him to show him how to write.
Dean first meets Sal because he wants to learn how to write. Not respecting social norms (including the law), Dean is often in trouble with the police, as here.
Dean and Sal went to get drinks and Sal agreed to let Dean stay with him for a while, though he said he couldn’t teach him anything about writing. The two agreed to go out west at some point in the future. Sal says that Dean was “simply a youth tremendously excited with life.”
Sal admires Dean for his mad, free excitement for life. Dean is the catalyst that Sal needs to go on the road: almost as soon as they meet, they begin making plans to travel.
According to Sal, while out west before coming to New York, Dean had spent “a third of his time in the poolhall, a third in jail, and a third in the public library.” One night, the two went into New York to meet some girls, but the girls didn’t show up. Dean ended up meeting Carlo Marx, a “sorrowful poetic con-man.”
Sal, Dean, and their friends are all characterized as countercultural Beat figures: they are in and out of jail and mostly concerned with meeting girls and having a good time, but at the same time are “poetic” and value literature.
Dean and Carlo hit it off right away and Sal ended up following them as they rushed down the street, just as he’s pursued interesting people his whole life. Sal says that he only finds interesting the people who 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.” For about two weeks, Sal didn’t see Dean or Carlo, as those two became fast friends.
Sal is interested in people who disregard mainstream society in favor of living life to the fullest. Sal is slightly left out as Carlo and Dean become such good friends.
In the spring, many of Sal’s friends—including Dean—took trips out west. Dean, Carlo, and Sal took a picture together before Dean left, and they cut it two so that Dean and Carlo each kept a half. Sal then journeyed out west slightly later, beginning his “whole road experience.”
Sal and his friends take to the open road, heading out west. The picture that Dean and Carlo each keep half of symbolizes their friendship, but (given that it’s cut in two) might also suggest the possibility of such a friendship breaking.
Sal says that he went after Dean partly because he reminded him of a kind of long-lost brother. He says all his friends were either intellectuals or criminals, but that Dean’s intelligence was of a different kind. He calls him “a western kinsman of the sun.” He felt an urge to take off and follow Dean out west.
Sal regards his close friend Dean as like a brother to him. At this early point in the novel, Sal still associates the freedom of the road with the particular destination of the west.