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Review: One and Only: The Untold Story of On the Road

One and Only: The Untold Story of On The Road, may have played more to the heart had it been sub-titled The Untold Story of the Desolation Angels.  Published in November 2011, the volume is mainly comprised of Gerald Nicosia’s interviews with Lu Anne Henderson, former girlfriend of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady and first ex-wife of Cassady. Henderson, in On The Road, is referred to as ‘Marylou’.

Although not a character in the latter, her words paint, in the end, a portrait of the desolation of Jack and Neal, both driven to desperate distraction and depression by the roles and expectations foisted upon them in the former novel.  Also, through her words, we see how integral Lu Anne became in the formation of the Beat Generation; that she was not just another pert piece of jailbait Neal was known to chase.

We learn that Jack and Neal did not like each other.  Not many liked Neal, which can be blamed on fear, jealousy, or the thought of a natural born con dropped into the middle of a group of Columbia students.  Neal bared his heart and soul to Lu Anne; so did Jack. The two men came to know each other, not through interacting, but through what Lu Anne told one about the other, in the times they were alone together.  She loved them both and her love shone bright enough for them to see what was good, what brilliance burst from the other man. They became fast friends when Lu Anne introduced soul to soul; before that, they had trouble even having a simple conversation with each other.

On The Road presented Jack with a variety of psychic challenges from the constant worry and waiting for the publisher to accept it, to guilt-ridden doubt about how his friends would perceive the characters he forged from their earthly essences, to living up to being the character of ‘Sal Paradise’ – who with Neal as ‘Dean Moriarty’, gave a new sort of maverick hero to a strange new generation. This generation embraced, emulated, imitated and intoxicated itself into an active cerebral state where freedom of choice in our own fate and existence became true options by following the example of the rebel heroes. Mass emulation forced Jack and Neal into roles they had long outgrown. Not only that, Jack exaggerated and changed facts, so they had to live up to caricatures of themselves. In the meantime, their real blood spilled on the tracks.

Cassady, found himself stuck in Moriarty’s shoes ad infinutum, always ‘on,’ always the superhuman clown who was expected to perform constantly. A cross-over character used by Tom Wolfe, Cassady is seen as the man with the plan in The Electric Koolaid Acid Test, introduced in white tee and doing his famous hammer toss. Lu Anne never saw the hammer toss, although she had heard much of it, secondhand. When Neal finally talked about it, it was in shame, as he had painted himself into a predictable corner. In the beginning he felt obliged to live up to the image Kerouac had created and it had slowly turned into a sideshow, the hammer being the most obvious prop. Now he felt like a performing monkey. “I put on my act at six o’clock and eight o’clock,” he says, in Lu Anne’s best memory.

 

She is like a hip, sexy Dorothy, pulling back the curtains and revealing the Wizard(s)…Her lesson being pay no attention to the man behind the curtain. She knew the real men behind the curtain before the curtain cloaked them in myth and fable. Much of what she tells seems revelatory – but only in the context of how Kerouac tweaked real life into typed adventures. Jack and Neal – Men, not Gods – acted like most men do. If Neal had five dollars in his pocket, it was his five dollars. The Beats were not as communal a society as we would like to recall them as being. They were real people. They were selfish sometimes.One and Only: The Untold Story of On the Road

During the early 1950s Jack was in a state of high anxiety concerning his future, and the high expectations that went along with the hopeful success of his book, which he had started writing in 1948. Although, in legend, he is said to have written it all in one three-week stint,  he actually typed up the book on the infamous reel of teletype paper in 1951, culled from the notebooks that Jack always carried in his shirt pocket.  It was during the creative process of compiling these notes that Neal abandoned him and Lu Anne in San Francisco in 1949. Added to the frustration of butting heads with his publisher and trying to create a new style of prose, the rejection by Neal (who drove Jack and Lu Anne across the country, only to leave them stranded in the middle of the city with no cash while he returned to live with then-wife, Carolyn) seemed to set Jack off into a spiral of depression from which he would never fully recover. While most of the literary world and readers did not see this, Lu Anne did.

Lu Anne’s lot was not an easy one, either; bouts with irritable bowel syndrome eventually led to dependence on medications and ultimately to morphine and heroin addiction. While she outlived the pair of men, her lot was not easy. In the 1980s, she eventually returned to Denver, where she initially met Neal when she was fifteen years old, and cleaned up. Conducted in 1978, before her death from cancer in 2006, the transcription of the interview runs to some 34,000 words. We are also presented with 55 archival photographs of Lu Anne, Jack, Neal, Allen Ginsberg, Al Hinkle, and other Beat figures, some of which have never been seen before this printing by Viva Editions.

In many ways, it is more sobering than most volumes on Beat history. One telling incident is hopelessness concealed in the question Neal asked Lu Anne, when he finally went quiet and quit acting, “Where do we go from here, Babe?”