Like so many young people in the ’70s, Sam Kashner grew up
fascinated by the Beat Generation. He read the legendary works,
“On the Road” (Jack Kerouac), “Howl” (Allan
Ginsberg) and “Naked Lunch” (William Borroughs), which
inspired him to rebel against his middle-class parents and Western
society in general. When he saw a photograph of Ginsberg, Peter
Orlovsky, and Neal Cassady — the original beatniks — he
“wanted to be in the picture” too, but he
“didn’t want to get hurt.”

Book Reviews

“I wanted ‘Naked Brunch,’ ” he said,
instead of a “Naked Lunch.” So, Kashner dropped out of
college to attend the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics,
an experience he records in his memoir, “When I Was
Cool.”

When Kashner arrives, he discovers that the school does not yet
have accreditation or any other students. He becomes Allen
Ginsberg’s apprentice, typing and even finishing some of his
poems for him. He attends classes on such subjects as imaginary
maps and investigative poetics.

“When I Was Cool” is a collection of amusing
anecdotes that wanders aimlessly through Kashner’s first few
months at the Jack Kerouac School. In the process, however, he
paints an intriguing picture of the beatniks as their careers began
to fade. In their prime, they had fearlessly glorified drugs,
poverty and social dissonance. By the time Kashner meets the
beatniks, they are beginning to pay the price of living on the
outskirts of society and abusing their bodies. Some are terrified
of old age and death while others are plagued by mental illness.
Above all, they are all inconsolably lonely.

Ginsberg, desperate to hold together the lives of his long-time
friends, instructs Kashner to keep an eye on some of the beatniks.
The innocent and fearful student tries to keep Gregory Corso off
drugs, so he can finish his book and reconcile Borroughs with his
emotionally and physically ill son, Billy. Kashner’s efforts,
however, are futile. He ends up paying for Corso’s addiction
with his father’s Diner’s Club card while Billy, the
“prince of the Beat tribe,” wastes away.

In the midst of this madness, Kashner struggles to define both
his identity and values. At first, he is fascinated by the lives of
his mentors, but by the end of his time at the Jack Kerouac School,
Kashner is disillusioned with the Beat Generation. When he
graduates, he wonders if he had just spent “two years in the
valley of the lost men.”

Kashner can be surprisingly poignant while describing the
loneliness of the Beat Generation, but on the whole, his writing is
unpoetic for someone who attended a school of disembodied poetics.
Furthermore, his narrative can be self-absorbed and he has a
tendency to forget that he is not the only poetry student at the
school. These issues aside, “When I Was Cool” is an
interesting exploration of social rebellion and isolation,
especially for readers who have wondered what the Beatniks were
really like and what happened to them after they came home from the
road.

 

Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars

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