Wednesday, February 23, 2011
Neal Cassady's The First Third: A Review (of sorts)
I just finished reading Neal Cassady's The First Third: A Partial Autobiography & Other Writings (borrowed from UMF's Mantor Library). In a nutshell, my head hurts yet I want more. The actual "partial autobiography," which takes up the first 80 pages, is interesting because it gives us a firsthand view of Neal's childhood with his dysfunctional family headed by his saintly alcoholic father. However, it would only be interesting to a fan of Cassady or Kerouac or the beat generation in general, because the writing, when it is not turgid, is vapid to a fault.
The "Other Writings" are all unpolished fragments, including "Adventures in Auto-eroticism," which is not at all about Neal pleasuring himself (at least not in the way one might predict from the title). Two fragments - "Neal Talking Telling Story Fall '63" and "Joe Hanns" - are basically the same story, the former (I assume) transcribed by Allen Ginsberg and the latter Neal's sophomoric attempt at formalizing the former into prose. I guess the point of including both is outweighed by the insights one gains in seeing how Neal's oral story-telling evolves into written prose. I found it singularly redundant and not enlightening at all.
It becomes clear in The First Third that, unlike Kerouac, Cassady didn't have the discipline to become a great writer, said discipline including not only extensive writing itself but also extensive rewriting (Jack did lots of re-writing, contrary to the myth that has grown up around On The Road and his marathon 3-week writing of same, all of which is total bullshit).
Now, might I have something good to say about our hero the holy goof's maiden (and almost only) literary effort? Yes. Indeed, the end of the book is its saving grace. First there is "One night in the summer of 1945...," a recollection of Cassady's first meeting with Allen Ginsberg. It's short but insightful. Next comes a series of letters, several to Jack Kerouac and one to Ken Kesey. In these letters, one sees the influence Cassady had on Kerouac's spontaneous prose writing style (as opposed to the painful autobiographical efforts earlier in the book). Reading these letters is like being on speed yourself: they ramble, dodge, soar, and change directions so that you feel like you are Cassady's brain. They are much more raw than Kerouac's writing, again supporting the fact that Kerouac revised his work, even the "spontaneous" stuff. Cassady's letters make me want to read the two collections of Cassady's letters: Grace Beats Karma: Letters from Prison and Neal Cassady: Collected Letters, 1944-1967.
Our boy never became the great writer he envisioned, but he sure had a major influence on Jack Kerouac, not only as a character in On The Road but also as a literary style muse. This alone makes reading The First Third essential to the true beat-o-phile. If you take the plunge, I'd be interested in knowing what you think.
Now, if we could only find the complete, original "Joan Anderson letter"!