The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac
Genre: Jack Kerouac
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars
Summary: Ray meets Japhy. I don’t really know what else to put here. Amazon says: “the novel relates the adventures of an ebullient group of Beatnik seekers in a freewheeling exploration of Buddhism and the search for Truth.” That sounds good.
What bums me out *ba dum ching* is that I am yet again resorting to something I was assigned to read. Bibliomantics is problematic because I totally want to read all of these books my co-bloggers have reviewed, but because we all need to talk about new books each week we will NEVER HAVE TIME TO READ THEM.
(Seriously, I’ve been working on Leviathan for two weeks.)
Anyway, today I’m talking Kerouac, which, yes, I had to read for school. And I do hate trying to review literary classics. However, like Babbitt, I actually really liked this book. Which is not to say I’m a *Kerouac fan*. I think this hipster kid from my class said it best: “Yeah, Kerouac’s really hit or miss, you know?”
Oh yes, hipster kid, I do know. I’ll probably get crap for this, but I kind of hated On the Road and technically did not finish it (thank you, Spark Notes). Which is why I’m going to talk about Dharma Bums instead.
If you’ve never read Kerouac before, here’s some fun facts!
*He was a major figure, in fact Wikipedia tells me a PIONEER, of the Beat movement
*Most of his books are consequently pseudo-autobiographical works about him and his crazy friends doing lots of drugs and hitchhiking around the country
*He does not write like other people write:
He just sits down and writes and writes and writes and writes and writes and writes and the paragraphs are super long and the sentences rambly and you look at it and you’re like god how many drugs were you on when you wrote this man it’s like you just decided to spill your thoughts out on a page have you ever heard of an outline why the hell am I reading this for a class?
(^Kind of like that.)
Both Dharma Bums and On the Road are written in this kind of style, but I found Dharma Bums to be, for the most part, a lot less frenetic than On the Road and therefore less irritating.
Both books feature Kerouac (who is referred to as “Sal” in On the Road and “Ray” in Dharma Bums) meeting a new, exciting person who serves as both an influence and a foil, and their ensuing adventures. These foil characters are the main difference between the two books. Ray meets Japhy Ryder (Gary Snyder in real life), a chill Zen Buddhist, outdoorsman, and intellectual who practices charity and compassion and nevertheless says goofy things all the time that will make you laugh.
In On the Road, Sal meets Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassaday in real life), who is actually insane, spends most of his time driving madly around the country because he can’t stay still, and marrying/divorcing/impregnating various women because he doesn’t give a shit about them. Basically, he’s an asshole. In both books, Kerouac’s character is in a place where he could use some guidance, and I so much preferred to read about Japhy’s.
Dharma Bums also pulled me in with all the Buddhism stuff. I’m a huge fan of Buddhism, or at least certain forms of it. It’s practiced in about a million different ways all over the world, and Dharma Bums captures some of the American-bastardized versions that became really popular in the 50s.
The main tension in the book is the difference between Japhy’s Buddhism and Ray’s Buddhism (and they literally refer to it that way, saying things like, “My Buddhism is more like this…”) and is explored through Japhy and Ray as they alternate living (and partying) in the city, and finding peace in the wilderness.
Ray takes the Buddhist concept of emptiness too far and uses it as an excuse not to engage fully with a world that has disappointed him. I think his Buddhism can be summed up by how he words the Noble Truths: The ones he focuses on are 1) “Life is suffering” and 3) “Suffering can be suppressed.” Most versions definitively state that suffering has an end. Ray disapproves of sex (lust is what causes new life, and people are born only to die, so lust is a source of suffering), but he gets drunk all the time.
Ray also has a habit of referring to “God” and “Heaven,” which is pretty weird since he takes the concept of emptiness so literally–I don’t really get how he can think the world isn’t real, but believe in an intangible and permanent concept like God. Critics of the book have said that Kerouac just uses Buddhism as a shifty disguise for his life-long practice of Catholicism, but I think that’s a shallow reading. Kerouac is critical enough of himself, which comes through in his glorification of Japhy.
Japhy does not believe that making a judgment about the realness of the world is necessary, but that as long as you are in it you need to live well and help others. Japhy loves sex, but not so much booze. He likes to translate Japanese poetry and study mythology and go camping in the mountains. Honestly, it all sounds really nice, and Ray is taken in by the lifestyle too. It is a refreshing alternative to Ray’s borderline-nihilism.
That’s the gist of it, but honestly if you haven’t read anything about Buddhism before, I think a lot of this book will be confusing. You will still be able to enjoy the colorful cast of characters, however–Kerouac hung out with a wide variety of poets, hitchhikers and generally people with good stories to tell. And even with, or perhaps because of, his unstructured writing he captures their quirks magnificently. I found myself laughing out loud during many of the conversations in this book.
Another thing that Kerouac really works with his style is an ability to create a beautiful or terrible scene and attach very raw, real emotions to it. This comes through particularly in the beginning when Ray, Japhy, and their goofy-ass friend Morley go on a mountain climbing trip that both terrifies and liberates Ray, and at the end when Ray takes a fire-watch job on Desolation Peak, which leaves him living almost alone in the wilderness.
My professor finds Ray’s tendency to mentally “obliterate” the tangible world shows violence and anger on his part. An example he used was close to the beginning when Ray explains his feelings about sex and how he often reminds himself, “Pretty girls make graves.” He also mentioned a time later in the book when Ray feels that he has reached an epiphany on the nature of reality (one of many in the book) and says, “There’d be a puddle of water with a star shining in it, I’d spit in the puddle, the star would be obliterated, I’d say, ‘That star is real?’”
I don’t sense violence from Ray, however. Mostly, I think he’s tired. It’s evident in the way he acts when they return to the city, and his need to drink so much. The guy literally wants to sleep all the time, and has strange waking-dreams. His weariness and alternating sadness and exuberant joy as he contemplates the world are extremely relatable.
So am I recommending this book? Kind of. Again. It’s not for everyone, and there is the whole Buddhism-confusion thing. But it’s very real, often entertaining, and comes to a few beautiful, not-very-conclusive conclusions that will leave you thinking.
(Not to mention, if you want to have any hipster cred at all you need to read Kerouac. So.)