25 Women to Read Before You Die

Wednesday, February 18th, 2004


When I Was Cool: My Life at the Jack Kerouac School

by Sam Kashner

Party School

A review by Anna Godbersen

Reading the histories of artistic movements always makes me a little sad. If only I had been hanging around the Café de Flore in say 1926, I think, or the Cedar Tavern circa 1950. In the early 1970s a sometime college student named Sam Kashner was looking for a history of his literary heroes, the Beat Generation. Instead of a book, he really did get to walk into the Beat scene, in its later years, when the principal characters were still flesh and blood. As it were.

In his memoir, When I Was Cool, Kashner tells how he became the first student of the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, a wing of the Buddhist Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. When he arrives in the summer of 1976, the school is still yet to be accredited, but it does feature Allen Ginsburg, William Burroughs, and the less prominent but no less "beat" poets Anne Waldman and Gregory Corso, as its core faculty. As the first (and for awhile, only) student, Kashner gets to know his heroes intimately. They waste no time involving him in their messy love lives, scattered finances, and famous drug habits—in short, the antics from which great anecdotes are made. Kashner's number-one hero is Allen Ginsberg, and he is assigned to be Ginsberg’s apprentice. A job, it turns out, which includes finishing the boss's poems (the first on the subject of giving Neal Cassady a blow job), cleaning the Guru's house, and keeping other faculty members off heroin. Upon first meeting Kashner, Ginsburg tells him: "You're a sweet boy… so unborn." When I Was Cool does have a wonderfully blank quality, as though Kashner is writing from that place of youthful worship. He unabashedly reveals his more adolescent concerns, obsessing over whether Beats will think he's uncool once they've met his parents, or what Anne Waldman will look like once her white sari gets soaked in the rain. More than once, his teachers bring him to tears. More importantly, he allows their anecdotes to run into his own, creating a fluid narrative free of that judgmental tone hindsight so often takes. He generously allows his heroes to speak for themselves, revealing all the fears, weaknesses and brilliance of flesh and blood people.

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