Sam Kashner
When I Was Cool

By Jonathan Polonsky

What would you give to learn how to write at the feet of your greatest literary heroes? Sam Kashner was an aspiring poet who, to the bafflement of his accommodating parents, gave up a degree at a regular university to become an apprentice to his hero Allen Ginsberg at the 'Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics'. Kashner's highly readable and entertaining memoirs contain some valuable insights into the beats – those brilliant demigods of American literature. But Kashner successfully demystifies their enduring legend at the same time.

The first question that arises is 'why?' Why add to an already over-crowded market of true accounts of life with the beats? More shelf space has been dedicated to covering their exploits than to any other literary circle before or since.

The answer is that Kashner has a unique perspective on a unique period in the the beats' history. It is the mid-1970s. 'King of the Beats' Kerouac and his muse, Neal Cassady, are dead. Bob Dylan has taken over the mantle of prophet of the times. The surviving beats – Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky, William Burroughs, Gregory Corso and Anne Waldman – have relocated to Boulder, Colorado to set up a poetry school in Kerouac's honour at the only Buddhist college in America. Kashner arrives in the school's infancy, and is set to work more as Ginsberg's personal assistant than as a poetry student. This affords him an incredible opportunity to understand the strengths and weaknesses of his idols.

Ginsberg appears as an ageing, neurotic old queer, equally preoccupied with taking boys to bed as with his place in America's cultural pantheon. Despite Kashner's extended exposure to Allen and Orlovsky, his idiot-savant life partner, we really don't see as much of them as we would like. The same can be said for William Burroughs. A lot has been written about these principal beats, and maybe there was little else to contribute. Still, you feel that their confidant of two years should have more to say about them as people – though there are some fabulous moments. At one point, Burroughs, who was apparently as austere and sour as previous accounts claim, weeps over his lost friend, Jack. I assumed he meant Kerouac, but he's referring to Jack London, his boyhood literary hero. This was the first time I'd read of Burroughs shedding a tear at the notion of loss – it seems he didn't even cry when he shot his wife during a William Tell-like stunt.

The one who really stands out as being, as the saying goes, 'beat down to his soul', is Gregory Corso. Corso was a lesser known poet than his friends Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs, but was really as 'beat' as any of them. Kashner came to Denver in order to meet the heroes who 'lived their art', and it was only really in Corso that he found the passion for living on the fringes. That's what Kashner claims he was searching for, but while his wild heroes and their younger successors are getting up to all sorts of 'beat living', Kashner himself only rarely indulges, and even then only reluctantly: 'i wanted life to be "beat", but I also wanted a hot towel waiting for me when I got out of the shower... I wanted the beat experience, but I didn't want to get hurt.' and it shows. At the end of this book, we're left with an overwhelming sensation of opportunities not taken, of a mission unfulfilled. Kashner went to denver looking for life, but he neglected to leave his neurotic personality at home in New York.

When I Was Cool
is a rich, rewarding and occasionally brilliant read – even if, at times, it's a poorly organised and edited ramble down memory lane, too abrupt and lacking in the poetic prose one might expect. This ugly and beautiful book is essential reading for all with even a passing interest in the ugly and beautiful beat poets.
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