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Neal Cassady biography (book review)

5 March 2012

Neal Cassady: The Fast Life of a Beat HeroNeal Cassady: The Fast Life of a Beat Hero by David Sandison

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Some years ago I read another biography of Neal Cassady, The holy goof by William Plummer. The only book that Neal Cassady himself had published was a partial autobiography, The first third, so this is not a literary biography in the sense that Cassady was a famous author. His claim to (literary) fame was that he appears as a character in the novels of his friend Jack Kerouac and the poems of his friend Allen Ginsberg, and also in Go by John Clellon Holmes.

Kerouac and Ginsberg admired him tremendously, and he influenced their writing in several ways. He was the protagonist of Kerouac’s On the road, thus providing the subject matter, but he also influenced Kerouac in his style of writing.

But reading the biography makes it difficult to see what others found to admire about Cassady. He doesn’t really seem to live up to the epithet “holy”. The “holy goof” has echoes of the saints called “holy fools”, whose sometimes bizarre behaviour shocked respectable people. But this biography is perhaps a more sober one than Plummer’s, and Cassady comes across as above all selfish and manipulative, and it is difficult to see how he managed to inspire such devotion and admiration in his friends. Perhaps the biography fails to capture some essential element of Cassady’s character, or perhaps his friends failed to see what he was really like.

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