cover image The Cool School: Writing from America's Hip Underground

The Cool School: Writing from America's Hip Underground

Edited by Glenn O'Brien. The Library of America (Penguin, dist.), $27.95 (484p) ISBN 978-1598532562

Former Rolling Stone editor O'Brien (How To Be A Man) gathers selections from those associated with the Beats in an attempt to shed light on the "original hipsters." Del Close's "Dictionary of Hip Words and Phrases" offers the observation that "beatnik" is a word used to denote anybody "you don't happen to like," while Norman Mailer suggests that a hipster is "a philosophical psychopath." Kerouac, who claims credit for the term's adoption, offers both the slang term "beat," meaning "poor, down and out," and his own interpretation of it as being short for "beatific." By the end of the book, which draws on memoirs, poems, novels, letters, essays, song lyrics, and other sources, the reader has been inundated with so many differing philosophies about the era that no clear picture emerges. With the current generation of hipsters losing its luster, there's a sense of desperation underlying this book's existence, as if by going back to the originals, one can somehow resuscitate "the sense that we were engaging in the real Scene that lay buried somewhere under the glum hypocrisies and lofty nonsense..." But try as O'Brien might, studied nostalgia can't recreate the Beat generation. Illustrated endpapers. No agent. (Oct.)