The Holy Goof and my own Dean Moriarty(s)

The Holy Goof by the late William Plummer is a biography of one of the greatest literary figures to never write anything substantial–his best-known work is a fragment of a letter. But Sherlock Holmes’ words to Watson might also describe Neal Cassady’s relationship to Jack Kerouac (On the Road), Allen Ginsberg (Howl), Ken Kesey (One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest) and Jerry Garcia (leader of the Grateful Dead): “Some people without possessing genius have a remarkable power of stimulating it.”

Cassady was, in simplest terms, an amiable flake in the right place at the right time. He was a poor boy from Denver with a quick mind and a taste for the drug of the moment (marijuana in the 40s and 50s, LSD and benzedrine in the 60s). He is “Dean Moriarty” in On the Road, and the after-the-fact template (as Plummer puts it, “Kesey had dreamed Cassady first, had imagined him into being–with the usual distortions of dreamwork, of course”) for McMurphy, protagonist of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. He is the “secret hero” of the landmark poem Howl. Garcia is quoted as saying, “Until I met Neal, I was headed toward being a graphic artist…he helped us be the kind of band we are, a concert not a studio band.”

Here’s a film clip of Allen Ginsberg; Cassady shows up at the 3:15 point.

What Cassady had that these other, more accomplished men lacked was a sure sense of his own affect on people: a natural grace. Despite a taste for brutally rough sex, he never lacked for female company. He could talk himself out of most conflicts with authority (although not all: he spent two notable stretches in prison for drugs). He was vastly well-read and self-educated. In other words, he mirrored things that Kerouac, Kesey, Garcia and especially Ginsberg could never manage for themselves.

I wonder how common this is among writers, especially those who grew up in the pre-internet age (alienated kids now have social resources I never had). How many of us seek out and latch onto people who are what we wish we could be? Here, then, is the story of my two Neals.

As a teen, I was a total loser. Girls were as alien to me as anything George Lucas put in his cantina. But I became friends with Willie*, who had an awesome car, all the girls he wanted, was a basketball star and knew all the places underage kids could get beer. In short, for a teen nerd in the swamps of west Tennessee, he was the epitome of natural grace. He did his best to teach me about cool music (he was into the Bee Gees before Saturday Night Fever) and how to dress to impress the ladies. Needless to say, as adults we have nothing in common; in fact, when I saw him last year at my stepfather’s funeral (the first time in at least twenty years), he was kind of creepy and pathetic, still talking of nothing but his glory days as a teen.

In college, I became friends with Jack*, who was tall, handsome, played guitar and had a wicked sense of humor. Everything he did seemed to be effortless. He could talk to any girl, make jokes with any guy, and was never socially awkward or off-balance. Even when falling-down drunk, he was cool. He encouraged my first attempts at writing something more substantial than a newspaper story, and we made grand plans for prose/music endeavors. Unlike Willie, Jack was also a decent guy, which made it impossible to be jealous of the ease with which he passed through life. He contacted me a few years ago and he’s turned out to be a solid family man with a respectable career. That made me happy. But I suppose I’ll always feel like Millhouse to his Bart.

Because I never aspired to revolutionize literary form like Kerouac and Ginsberg, or effect social change like Kesey, I haven’t transposed my Cassadys into any of my writing. But reading about the original Cassady got me thinking about whether other writers of the pre-internet generation had similar experiences. Did we all have our Neal Cassadys? And was this an exclusively male phenomena?

Leave a comment relating your own Neal Cassady, and be entered for a chance to win both The Holy Goof and a signed copy of my book of your choice.

*Name changed for reasons that should be obvious by the end of the post.

3 Comments on “The Holy Goof and my own Dean Moriarty(s)”

  1. Erik was the Solomon of our dorm floor—I didn't know him personally, but freshmen deferred to his wisdom with whispers of his awesomeness; he was so cool that in 1983, he had a TRS-80 in his dorm room. I saw him occasionally in the hall, his long hair and goatee so Bohemian. It turns out that he and I changed our majors to English at the same time, he from computer science and me from mechanical engineering. Suddenly I was in classes with him and saw how engaged he was with the material, how wide and deep his understanding, how many undergrad women just *dug* him. We both lost our roommates and decided to be roomies since we shared a major. To the other people living in the dorm, we were peas in a pod: two English students at a prominent school renowned for its applied sciences. But we saw the differences—my Edgar Rice Burroughs to his Erskine Caldwell, my Night Ranger to his collection of Prince albums and bootlegs, my Renaissance poets to his John Steinbeck. I was everything populist and he was just cool. We started travelling to used book and record stores together, and he didn't seem to mind very much that our tastes were totally different. He really pushed me to write, said he admired my ideas; it was great that the cool guy liked my words. And so we were published for the first time together in the school's literary magazine—my story a Bradburyian meditation on eugenics, his a beginner's homage to O'Connor. We got our masters degrees together and then went our different ways to chase our doctorates with varying degrees of success. Neither of us teaches any longer, but he recently contacted me and told me he enjoyed my blog. I realized that Erik remains one of the members of the imaginary audience that I am trying to impress. And the women still dig him.

  2. In college my Dean Moriarty was Scott. Extremely well-liked by everybody who met him, comfortable in any social situation on earth, hard-working, superb athlete, and the most ridiculously successful ladies man I've ever known – the parade of women on this guy's arm was like nothing you've ever seen. He was also one of the most genuinely nice guys I've ever known, and for three or four years we were tight, we hung out all the time, drank a lot of beer with a whole series of roommates, watched a lot of sports, and talked about my creative endeavors. I admired the guy a lot for all the things he effortlessly mastered that I had no grasp of at all, but in retrospect I think it's likely he felt the same way about me, because the things he had no discernible skills in were music, art and writing, all of which I've always been interested in and good at.

  3. I have two Neals myself.

    When I was 17 and awkward, Billy Hicks was 18 and radiated cool. He had a black Toyota with leather bucket seats and the girls flocked to him, drawn by his sly smile and his Southern drawl. He had an effortless way with words, and I was forever stumbling over my feet and my speech, so I kept my mouth shut and my eyes open.

    To this day, I don't know why Billy took me under his wing, but he did. Together with Frank Jackson from Memphis, a descendant of Old Hickory himself, we pal-ed around for one glorious summer. Frank was an expert in Judo, and was possessed of a fiery temper and an audacious sense of humor. He was forever starting or ending trouble, but was as true a friend as a guy could ever have. And Billy was a natural leader, cool to Frank's fire. And there was me, a short, thin dreamer with no world experience and all the makings of a wallflower if left to myself. But they didn't leave me to myself. They included me in all their adventures, and we had many. I'll never forget cramming seven kids into a four-seater car and driving down I-25 to Santa Fe, New Mexico for pizza or Mexican food, screaming down the road jamming to Boston. Billy and Frank saw something in me that no one else did and gave me the gumption to dream big, to ask the girl out, to share my opinion with the cool kids.

    I don't know where those guys are, or if they even remember me. But I'll never forget them, nor the impact they had on my life when I was an impressionable teen, and I've always tried to pay that forward, spending valuable time with people I come across who just need somebody to believe in them.

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