When I Was Cool
My Life at the Jack Kerouac School
By Sam Kashner
(Harper, Hardcover, 9780060005665, 336pp.)
Publication Date: February 1, 2004
List Price: $25.95*
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As a restless kid on Long Island, Sam Kashner lapped up the beauty and madness of the Beats, living vicariously through the novels, poems, and stories of Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs. Their words were revolutionary, and they turned their very lives into art. Kashner didn't want to just study the Beats, he wanted to be one of them. So when he heard that Ginsberg had founded an unconventional writing program in Boulder, Colorado, he convinced his parents that college could wait, and became the first certificate student of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics.
In one motion, Kashner stepped out of a sheltered suburban life and plunged into the chaotic world of his idols. What he discovered was both everything and not at all what he expected. The Beats were facing their twilight years and feeling it in their joints and in their minds. Some of them, like Ginsberg and Burroughs, had achieved international fame, while others, like Gregory Corso, had not, and were coming to the realization that they might never receive the recognition they deserved. In his new role as student, secretary, and psychiatrist, Sam Kashner was caught up in the hilarity of the hijinks and the cross fire of old arguments, finding himself in hot tubs with Ginsberg and on field trips to the marijuana ranch cultivated by Burroughs and his ill-fated son, Billy.
Out of this rich material Kashner brings us a funny, touching, and irreverent portrait of the Beats never before seen: one that explodes the myths surrounding these American icons, but one that is also deeply felt and full of admiration. After reading this book, you'll never look at the Beats in quite the same way again.
When I Was Cool is also a very personal journey of a young man coming of age on the Beat slope of Mount Parnassus ("the Lower East Side" of the Rockies), a kind of Holden Caulfield for the postmodern era.