My Years With Cassady,

Kerouac, and Ginsberg

By Carolyn Cassady

Morrow. 436 pp. $22.95

IN THE SWIRL of celebrity around notorious writers, it is easy to forget that there may be a personal tragedy entirely distinct from the literary tragedy of unfulfilled talent and promise. Refreshingly, Carolyn Cassady's Off the Road is not one more rehash of the literary anguish of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and Neal Cassady. Rather, Off the Road is a great book, as well as a wonderful autobiography, because it makes us feel the vast personal pain -- and the at least partial triumph over it -- of three writers: the heavyweights Kerouac and Ginsberg, and the man who inspired them both with his life and his amazingly detailed letters of personal enthusiasm and confession, Neal Cassady.

The story of the Beat Generation's unholy trio has been told countless times. Jack Kerouac, poor French-Canadian kid on a football scholarship to Columbia, disenchanted with the hypocrisies of middle-class America, drops out to "study" and, a` la Jack London, write about the down-and-out street characters on Times Square. Kerouac meets another misfit from Columbia: Allen Ginsberg, son of a Jewish schoolteacher and poet from New Jersey. Ginsberg is homosexual and falls in love with Jack, but going to bed with men is "not in Jack's line" (his own phrase), and so they settle for concocting decadent literary conspiracies with a little help from Rimbaud and Lautreamont.

But in post-World War II America, Kerouac and Ginsberg get nowhere debating whether or not God is dead and seeking models for their conduct in the characters of Dostoyevsky and Thomas Mann. Into their stultified intellectual midst breezes a "wild jailkid," a "cocksman and Adonis of Denver," the 20-year-old, handsome car thief and human dynamo named Neal Cassady. Cassady has a 16-year-old blonde under one arm and a copy of Shakespeare under the other; he apprentices himself to Kerouac and Ginsberg to learn how to write, and they apprentice themselves to him to learn how to live. Since Cassady swings both ways sexually, he and Ginsberg also get it on; and once again, Ginsberg falls in love. Although Cassady is too busy with his frenetic life to actually complete any literary oeuvre, the reading public will discover him and relive his antics 10 years later, when he emerges as the hero of two seminal works of the '50s: Allen Ginsberg's "Howl" and Jack Kerouac's On the Road.

Carolyn Cassady enters the story as Carolyn Robinson, a lovely blond graduate student at the University of Denver. Although she's already had a taste of sexual adventures, she is still tremendously naive about the devious ways of lustful men, and her values (forged in a model upper middle-class midwestern family) remain deeply traditional. She and Cassady fall for each other in a big way, and a good part of their love consists of the enormous challenge each presents to the other -- Cassady determined to conquer a woman whose class and sophistication are worlds apart from the poolhall hussies he's used to charming, and Carolyn determined to channel all this reckless male energy and spontaneous genius into a faithful husband and successful creative artist.

Needless to say, both ultimately failed, but the fact that their wrestling continued for over 20 years, and affected some of the most interesting literary productions of the period, allows Carolyn Cassady to tell one of those rare love stories that rise above personal idiosyncrasy and come to stand for the joys and tribulations of an entire generation.

The narrative of Off the Road flows so well because Carolyn turns it into a sort of detective story, in which the ambiguities of Neal's character are the mysteries which continually elude solution. The biggest mystery is what lies in Neal's heart. Dozens of men and women form a lifelong devotion to him, which endures despite the fact that he is a pathological liar and constitutionally incapable of fidelity to any lover, male or female. Much of this devotion is elicited by Cassady's nonstop verbal pyrotechnics -- he can rap for hours "on three levels at once," according to Carolyn, and thereby draw people into revealing their most intimate thoughts and experiences to him. But the question remains, does Cassady really care about these people into whose lives he intrudes so powerfully, or is he merely, in current psychological jargon, a "sociopath," mercilessly uncovering people's weaknesses the better to manipulate them, in order to satisfy his own endless need for sex, drugs and fresh excitement?

It is to Carolyn Cassady's credit as a writer that she never tries to squeeze a facile answer from her material. Instead, she simply lets us see into these men's lives from her own perspective as a devoted wife and mother struggling to build a household into which they can all fit productively. She and Neal move into a succession of houses in the San Francisco Bay area, they have three children in a row, and Neal prospers as a brakeman on the Southern Pacific Railroad. She views Kerouac and Ginsberg as more polished and better connected writers who can help her husband with his career; but for Neal, Jack and Allen represent a chance to escape the drudgeries of domestic life, companions with whom to get high, dig jazz and pursue various male kicks. Neal also uses Kerouac by suggesting he become Carolyn's lover, to keep her occupied while Neal is off sampling other pleasure gardens.

That Carolyn accepted the role Neal assigned her in this me'nage a` trois gives a measure of how far she had come from her wholesome girlhood in Michigan; but her reasons for accepting it also show how essentially "square" she remained: "I kept supposing I was different, meant more to him. This {Neal's offering her and Jack the chance to sleep together} seemed a greater rejection even than desertion . . . When Neal came down to tell me he and Jack were going out, I got a vision once more of the future as an incessant repetition of the past, and I knew I must do something to change it. None of the old ways had worked, so defiantly, I said half-aloud, 'All right, Neal dear, let's try it your way.' " Of course her love affair with Kerouac changes nothing, except that she and Jack both end up feeling too guilty to continue, and Neal merely experiences a temporary jealousy that increases his attentiveness -- but not his commitment to monogamy.

This bedrock of moral optimism in Carolyn -- however foolhardy -- enables her to portray these Beat rebels as both flawed and admirable human beings, rather than the larger-than-life icons that they have been cast as by the counterculture. Although Jack makes elaborate plans for him and Carolyn to live half the year in Mexico (the other half she'll supposedly spend with Neal and the kids), she knows this routine will never work because of Jack's essential immaturity and dependence on his mother for emotional support: "Both Jack and I knew marriage was not a solution for us, even had I been single; he knew he couldn't sit still long enough to shoulder the responsibilities, and as for me, I knew he was far too moody, too touchy and too wrapped up in himself."

Her insights into Ginsberg are similarly apt. She relates a scene in which Allen, who's moved into Jack's old room in their house, persuades her one hot night to take off all her clothes with him. Naked, they lie side by side on the living room floor, and she finds that for the first time she isn't self-conscious in such a situation, because she realizes that Ginsberg, "bellowing poem after poem to infinity," is "intent only on his own body" and his immense need to be loved. This perception is confirmed a few weeks later when she catches Allen and Neal in a sex act in Allen's room, which leads her to evict him from the household. She has the grace to apologize to Allen even as she throws him out, explaining that she knows he loves Neal as much as she but that she cannot continue to live in a situation where she'd "be frightened, jealous, and suspicious all the time."

Perhaps because she so adeptly reveals their feet of clay, this is one of the first books to completely account for the swift and tragic decline of both Kerouac and Cassady. Once On the Road became a bestseller, Kerouac was thrown into an alcoholic tailspin, unable to defend himself against the hostile critics just as he was never able to put together his fantasy of a domestic life with Carolyn -- because, like Neal, he "didn't persevere, couldn't sacrifice a small thing for a bigger dream, couldn't keep {his} eye on the ball -- they just scattered their energies fruitlessly."

Neal's own doom led him from one unsatisfying relationship to another, till, recognized as Dean Moriarty, the hero of On the Road, he was set up on a narcotics bust and did two years in San Quentin. After his release, Carolyn got fed up with him sabotaging the normal life she wanted to provide for her kids, and was pushed, much against her heart, to divorce him. Neal then got picked up by Ken Kesey and his band of drugged-out Merry Pranksters, for whom he served as a sort of mascot and performing bear, a "trip" that ended with his death in Mexico from a mixture of pills and booze. He was only 42.

One of Carolyn's more poignant insights is that no women could ever save Cassady because Cassady essentially hated women (perhaps because his mother abandoned him as a child), and thus he was always driven by "his unconscious need to 'get even' " with them by abusive behavior.

Concerning Ginsberg's ability, alone among the three, to subdue his demons sufficiently to lead a long, stable, and creatively prolific life, Carolyn provides fewer clues, primarily because she knew she knew him far less well.

ONE MIGHT wish the last half of her book contained less of the sort of theosophical speculation -- regarding reincarnations and spiritual lessons -- that Carolyn derived from her and Neal's joint obsession with the teachings of the American mystic Edgar Cayce. But regardless of whether we care to read their story as a universal moral drama, or simply the tale of four people who chose to forge a more humane lifestyle in an era of rigid conformity and political oppression, Off the Road is a book that has much to teach. Throughout, it radiates the energy and light of its "secret hero," the ever paradoxical Neal Cassady, who, despite all the friends he lied to and the lovers he betrayed, left a legacy of inspiration to thousands of people the world over, offering a defiant joie de vivre and a hope that it really is possible to lead a more fulfilling life than the one we're originally handed. It was that refusal to stay down that made Cassady, in the words of teacher Gavin Arthur, "one of the great human beings that we have ever known" -- and Carolyn Cassady has at last given him a tribute that equals in depth and sensitivity Cassady's own contribution. Gerald Nicosia, author of "Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac," is currently at work on a history of the Vietnam veterans' movement.