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Book Review: OFF THE ROAD by Carolyn Cassady

Subtitled “Twenty years with Cassady, Kerouac and Ginsberg,” Carolyn Cassady’s self-effacing autobiography of her life among the beats in the 1940’s, 50’s and 60’s focuses largely on her larger-than-life husband, Neal Cassady, and his propensity for licentious self-destruction. Published in 1990, her second chronicle concerning these events might be summarized by the acerbic cliché, you can take the boy out of the gutter but you can’t take the gutter out of the boy. But that cryptic observation, however accurate, takes all the fun and pathos out of the tale.



Given that we, as consumers, have been besieged for decades from every side by increasingly more voyeuristic self-aggrandizing “information” and “entertainment,” from the likes of tabloid newspapers, rap music, “reality television,” poor-pick-your-color trash interviews parading across endless toilet radio and TV talk shows in which everyone is encouraged to find their own lowest common denominator, to endless “real” police chases involving drunken low-lives putting other people at risk, endless lethal “real” legal reenactments, one might ask what’s the big deal? But in that bygone era immediately following WW2, public voyeurism was limited largely to “Queen for a Day,” in which miserable welfare moms degraded themselves publicly for prizes on TV, and Joe Pyne belligerently interviewing assorted hapless nutcases as well as every stripe of celebrity less conservative than he willing to verbally spar with him. Then, ON THE ROAD, published in 1957, abruptly gave poverty/penury, intoxication and irreverent irresponsibility the allure it holds today, albeit with a certain literary charm notably absent from the raging contemporary variety.



Neal Cassady under the pseudonym of Dean Moriarty was just barely fictionalized by Jack Kerouac in ON THE ROAD. He appears in most of Kerouac’s later work as Cody Pomeray. Allan Ginsberg, also Neal Cassady’s lover, dedicated HOWL to him. Ken Kesey used Cassady as the inspiration for Randle McMurphy, the protagonist in ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST. Cassady, as himself, appears as the infamous school bus driver in Tom Wolfe’s nonfiction account of the Merry Pranksters, THE ELECTRIC KOOL-AID ACID TEST. Cassady’s persona or his name appears in over a dozen films and many recorded songs. Quite a testament for a poor-boy libertine and wannabe author who died half a century ago. His only published work during his lifetime was a small collection of poetry with Kerouac. His intended magnum opus, THE FIRST THIRD, was left unfinished, appropriately at the first third. (Although since his death much of his copious correspondence has seen publication.) So Cassady was, in every sense, the poster-boy for self-indulgence-as-a-way-of-life and his struggles between supporting his growing family and his consuming need for external stimulation comprise much of OFF THE ROAD.



Carolyn Cassady, Neal’s stay-at-home wife, unlike her notorious husband, came from a stable, if cold, middle class family and was college educated. Her circle of friends while studying in Denver included several brash townies, and when the smooth talking lively Neal Cassady came into her life there, she was swept away by his charm to the degree that she gutted out their marriage through his many infidelities, accelerating substance abuse, constant prevarications, having three children along the way. She also became Jack Kerouac’s lover at her husband’s encouragement, although their ménage à trois was often wracked by painful jealousy on behalf of all of them—her for being excluded from their world, and they for her affections.



The tale is the ups and downs of her life among the wild bunch, her introduction to various recreational drugs, her struggle with her love for a man for whom she could never be enough, as well as insights into some of the names in the “beat generation” as Allan Ginsburg christened them from the term coined by Kerouac. Along the way she is overly exposed to many of her husband’s lovers, from Luanne, the underage sado-masochistic first wife, to Diane, the self-deluding bigamous third wife, to the tragically suicidal Natalie Jackson, to the insanely loyal Ann Murray, to the unhinged and barely coherent J.B. Oddly, many of these women courted her friendship never accepting her open resentment that they were destroying her marriage. The book chronicles her courtship with Neal, her abandonment during Neal’s abrupt road trips, the various self-awareness/spiritual pursuits upon which the core group embarked, Neal's imprisonment for offering a joint to a pair of narcs, to the inevitable destruction of Neal with the Merry Pranksters and Jack when the long overdue success of ON THE ROAD overwhelmed them both, in very different ways.



Neal’s many facets are portrayed, from his willingness to work hard for long hours to his need for self abasement into which Carolyn was unwittingly drawn to the lure for a spiritual dicipline. The author’s prose is crisp and to the point, but without Kerouac’s poetry, proclaiming another, altogether different, truth. Whereas the guys wanted “kicks,” Carolyn wanted stability. Neal attempted to straddle the fence, living in both worlds, burning the candle at both ends and in the middle, until a myriad legal problems and a succumbing to his demons killed him a day before his 43rd birthday. The overly sensitive Kerouac died within a year in self imposed exile, having drunk himself to death at age 47. There is a bittersweet humor throughout the book, such in the lengths two of Neal’s lovers go hounding his wife for his ashes, the absurdities of Neal’s foolproof system at the racetrack which depletes their saving’s account, or Ginsberg’s flagrant irreverence during a spiritual gathering in their home. Whereas Jack Kerouac breathed life into the myth of the beat lifestyle, Carolyn Cassady took a more journalistic approach, relating the ups and downs, the twists along the way, the small joys and the big heartbreaks Kerouac’s myth enshrines.


Available at Amazon.com and your local library.




© 2013  Paul L. Bates