Neal Cassady; off page progenitor of Beat, Dean Moriarty or Cody Pomeray to Kerouac’s Sal Paradise et al, inspirer (and more) of Ginsberg and Howl, godfather of psychedelic counterculture and The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test… or so legend would have it, but could all that possibly be the truth?
In The First Third, Cassady himself sets out his story in his words, or at least some of it, and proves, as you might expect, that it is both truth and a kind of fiction.
Published by City Lights, the original home of the Beat Generation, the book combines a partial autobiography with collected other autobiographical moments, poems and letters that go some way to show the man behind the myth, while backing it up at the same time.
Cassady’s story is one that could only have existed in its time, trapped between the expansionist, pioneering American Dream of the 1800s and the post war malaise that became the Great Depression. The main chunk of The First Third explores Cassady’s youth, following a fascinating if at times fractured exploration of his heritage as the offspring of two families who emigrated to the US as part of that mid-1800s boom.
His story, while one with a hint of typically romanticised nostalgia for childhood, is about as dysfunctional as they come; skipping between homes, ‘homes’, lodging houses and parents, mostly around Denver, Colorado, along with trips that would prefigure the story that would make he and his alter-ego Moriarty so famous.
Cassady’s style of writing comes in the form of a kind of precursor to the ‘spontaneous prose’ he inspired from Kerouac and, while clearly falling into the Beat aesthetic, has a naivety to it that suits the tales of his childhood adventures and make this section of the book fly by.
The second half of The First Third is more of a mixed bag dipping in and out of tales from Cassady’s teenage and adult life that, as they go on, become increasingly concerned with a seeming obsession with sex and bragging about his sexual conquests. Here his naïve style becomes at odds to the content and often feels repetitive ably demonstrating that an addict talking about his addictions (it seems not only sex but drugs, alcohol and anything else that comes along) are certainly far from the most interesting of subjects.
This continues in the books final section containing a series of letters to Jack Kerouac and then Ken Kesey that bring us up to 1965, three years before Cassady’s death, which at least give the whole a kind of vaguely rounded complete autobiography feel.
In amongst this mixed bag of the books second half is its highlight, a short prose-poem Leaving L.A. by Train at Night, High… Subject wise, it’s all in the title, but Cassady paints a vivid picture from a late 1940s perspective, now lost to the sprawling metropolis the city has become, but with hints and suggestions that even now bring it back to life.
In all, Lawrence Ferlinghetti sums it up in his 1981 Editor’s Note when he describes The First Third as being written in ‘homespun, primitive prose’, but this seems to capture the spirit of the writer and his truly unique story from potential drop out bum to cult icon and hero of a new kind of American Dream that has also since been lost to history and nostalgia leaving in its wake some great literary art.