4.5* (out of 5*)

I read this book last year, but still keep a copy in the passenger door shelf of my car because it is one I can easily dip in and out of when traffic to or from work has gridlocked and I get a chance to pull over and wait it out (Note: I do not read and drive, in case you were worried.)

When I was in my mid-teens, I simply adored Jack Kerouac’s writing. I could not get enough of it. His books always promised a sense of freedom and symbolised a defiance of whatever convention seemed to bug me at the time. And how could I not love the writing that inspired so many of my other cultural heroes? It didn’t come easy at that time to criticise Kerouac’s writing for the sexism and blatant promotion of opportunism that is the foundation of Sal’s and Dean’s exploits. 

Off the Road, which is the story of Carolyn Cassady, Neal Cassady’s wife (well, one of them), offers a counterpart to the stories of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady. It holds up a mirror to the romanticised notion of the Beats and offers a somewhat more balanced insight to both the man who would be immortalised as Dean Moriarty in On the Road and the man who would create him as a literary hero.

Cassady gives quite an honest and to-the-point account of what lead her to become in volved with Neal Cassady, their ensuing relationship, and the events that have lead her to abandon the life of a society dropout. On occasion, her narration is funny, at other times it come across as bitter, though this arguably is justified. 

What struck me most is the level of naivete that she displayed at the beginning of her relationship with Neal. There were quite a few moments that caught me rolling my eyes in disbelief. However, I guess that so would she having the benefit of hindsight. What Off the Road did really well for me was to portray the double standards that build the basis of On the Road – and which are not mentioned by Kerouac. 

What I mean is that, as much as On the Road raves on about the aspirations of being an independent single-minded carefree human being, it never mentions that Dean/Neal and his friends relied heavily on the goodwill and hard work of their family and friends.