Off The Road
By Carolyn Cassady
This book provokes all sorts of emotions: anger, shock, horror, disbelief, mortification, but most of all sadness. The story tells the other side of the Neal Cassady – Jack Kerouac – Allen Ginsberg show, that Kerouac wrote about in On The Road, which was published in 1957 and became a cult novel selling millions.
This account comes from the point of view of Carolyn Cassady, wife and mother of three of Cassady’s children. The writing is very good, she is always interesting, making it a real page turner. She is also very honest, unflinchingly honest and it is heartbreaking.
She met and married Neal Cassady when she was 24yrs and he just 21 yrs. She was in trouble from the start. There were always other women and a fly-by-night attitude to everything. She fell pregnant quickly and two more children followed in quick succession.
Their lives, together with the lives of Jack Kerouac and the poet Allen Ginsberg, are brought to life vividly by Carolyn, aided by the many letters sent between the four parties.
Off The Road is the counterpoint to the rollicking adventures in On The Road, showing the other side of the men’s lives, how they loved, laughed and, in the end, tore themselves apart.
Carolyn is magnificent. I cannot imagine a lady with more strength of character, and how she needed it. She gave her life over to Neal Cassady who, whilst he may have loved her in his own way, repaid her by breaking her heart countless times and, unforgivably, humiliating her. But Carolyn does not come across as bitter or resentful. Once she realised her dream marriage was never going to happen, she accepted it and carried on.
Her affair with Jack Kerouac, a period of time she calls “having two husbands”, happened at the behest of Neal and seemed to bring her most happiness. The only thing keeping them apart in the end was the greater love for Neal on both sides.
When Neal is jailed for two years on drug charges, Carolyn manages to get a nice life for herself and her kids, finally realising that she doesn’t want to go back to the way things were. Alas, take him back she does. When, unsurprisingly, he goes back to his old ways, he lands her a blow that she cannot recover from and she divorces him. No-one on earth could blame her, but she is regretful and feels that she took away the support pillars that he relied on to keep him level. Why she feels her life should be nothing more than a support for a grown man who constantly throws all her love back in her face is anyone’s guess.
The downward spiral of both Cassady and Kerouac is sad to behold. Their depressions, aided and abetted by drugs and alcohol, turned them into shadows of their former selves and eventually killed them both.
The faith that Neal and Carolyn had together sustained Carolyn through the good and bad times and she comes out of this as an amazing woman.
The term ‘genius’ is bandied about in regard to Neal, but he didn’t seem to do anything except to inspire others and it seems to serve as an excuse for his bad behaviour, but he chose his path and went willingly down it.
For Jack, if he had met Carolyn first maybe things would have been different for him. He seems to have loved her more than Neal ever could and maybe they would have been happy together. We’ll never know.
I can’t recommend this book highly enough. If you have read On The Road, then this is the other side of the story and beautifully told. If you haven’t read On The Road or even heard of the protagonists, it is still such a wonderful book about relationships and the human condition that it should not be missed.