Heart Beat Review

I was in a little beaten bookshop in San Luis Obispo, killing time on a hot and humid day, when I found an ancient copy of Carolyn Cassady’s Heart Beat: My Life with Jack & Neal. I laughed at the crude cover and the cheap and nasty advertising of the motion picture based on the book. Nick Nolte, Cissy Spacek and John Heard stare out pathetically at the viewer lucky enough to only be holding a copy of the book and not sitting through their dire attempt at blatantly missing the point on screen…

The book smacked of a cheap, dumb-women targeted novel. The paper was cheap, the title cheap, the film stars paraded pointlessly, the flouting of Kerouac’s name for the sake of selling a few extra copies… All pathetic and an affront to the Beat name.

But of course, there’s an old adage… Something about books and covers and judgement… I forget…

Heart Beat is simply Carolyn Cassady’s attempt at writing her memoirs, painfully exploited by publishers and booksellers, and resulting in an interesting mix of fact, sentimental crap, and an ugly final product.

We’ve already covered the cover… It looks like a Mills & Boone effort and nothing more… And as for the exploitation, well we’ve partially covered that. The publishers were desperate to grab Kerouac’s notoriety and sell a few copies and motion picture. But more to the point, this pocket book is actually an excerpt from the ‘work-in-progress tentatively titled The Third Word.’

In other words, Heart Beat was a catchy title for a preliminary draft of a section of a book she may have written for the purpose of making a movie… Or so says the sceptic in me, which happens to be the part of me that controls my speaking and writing functions. But hey, how often are sceptics wrong?

The book is short, but so is the attention span of the target reader – the ignorant and borderline illiterate housewife amused by crudely written text and sexual tension. Add into the mix an aspect of celebrity scandal… Well, we’ve got a best seller, friend.

But seriously, for people unwilling to trawl through volumes of decent writing, Heart Beat does contain one perspective of an interesting period of history in the lives of three Beat figures: Neal and Carolyn Cassady, and Jack Kerouac. Included also are letters to and from Allen Ginsberg, adding an extra dimension of historical and literary interest. Of course, these are all available for reading elsewhere, as is all of the information contained and more.

But for simply offering an intimate portrait of the relationship between the three (or four, including the absent Ginsberg) Beats, Heart Beat is worth the ten minutes it takes to read from cover to cover. And it is certainly a rare chance to hear the voice of a female Beat, a breed largely written out of the history except as a sidestory. Of course, after reading Carolyn Cassady writing, perhaps it was for the best that her voice was largely forgotten…

David S. Wills

David S. Wills is the founder and editor of Beatdom literary journal and the author of Scientologist! William S. Burroughs the Weird Cult and World Citizen: Allen Ginsberg as Traveller. His next book, High White Notes: The Rise and Fall of Gonzo Journalism comes out in November, 2021.

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