Off the Road

When Jack Kerouac’s ON THE ROAD was published (1955), it was touted as an explosion of consciousness, a mind-expanding trip into emotion and sensation, drugs and liquor and sex; it expressed an attitude toward living that cracked the gray facade of the 1950’s wide open for a youthful subculture. Neal Cassady was immortalized in the novel as the enigmatic, heroically reckless Dean Moriarty. Carolyn Cassady makes vividly clear that Neal’s entry into her staid, middle-class existence proved to be a prophetic glimpse of the life-changing and revolutionary entry of Moriarty into the consciousness of young Americans hungry for escape from prevailing social codes.

Reared in a Midwest family, nothing in her experience had prepared her for the charismatic, unpredictable, and endlessly energetic Neal Cassady, nor the cost of loving him. That Neal habitually used women for sexual gratification only, and that he seemed compelled to break rules, and then to seek punishment from “Ma” Carolyn, are just two of the myriad facets of his personality delineated here. Slowly and painfully Carolyn learned to expect from him only transiency and promiscuity.

Although the first seventy pages of Cassady’s self-portrait seems tentative, her story becomes more forceful after she recounts the birth of her first child. As the Cassadys’ three children enter the picture, Neal’s irresponsibility has increasingly devastating effects upon Carolyn’s life. Consequently, the intensity and forward movement of the narrative increase dramatically; the remaining 350 pages are totally engrossing. Cassady’s is a valuable account of the mundanity that underpinned the hyped transcendentalism of the Beat generation’s central figures.