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on 26 March 2004
Man, I don't know where to start. "The Dharma Bums" is a masterpiece of the Beat Generation and a novel I will not soon forget. After The Loser's Club by Richard Perez, this is the best book I've read all year.
Jack Kerouac wrote this story about his days as a Zen Buddhist and rucksack wanderer. His alias in the book is Raymond Smith, and he is living in Berkley with his good buddy Alvah Goldbook(Allen Ginsburg). Ray meets a Zen Lunatic named Japhy Ryder(Gary Snyder), and together they travel the mountains and pastures of Central California trying to find themselves and find the true meaning of life. Ray also journies to Desolation Peak in Washington and lives there alone for the summer, which is just another chapter to this amazing piece of literature.
Another part of this book that impressed me was the beginning, when Kerouac wrote about his experience at the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance, and spoke of Alvah Goldbook's first reading of his poem "Wail", which in reality was Allen Ginsburg's legendary first reading of "Howl", which to this day is a Beat Literature classic.
While reading this book, I was constantly marking lines and passages, because some of the descriptions and poetry Kerouac included in this novel are simply amazing. "The Dharma Bums" is one of those books I will treasure forever and read over and over again.
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on 29 June 2009
Jack Kerouac has been critised by other reviewers here, and also at the time, for 'dabbling' in Buddhism with The Dharma Bums. Buddhist scholars like D.T Suzuki were highly sceptical. But whilst it was Eastern philosophy that Kerouac and his circle give a bit of a mauling to (and they were ahead of the hippies by a decade in doing this) the subtext of this book is really about Kerouac the person and his desperate search for something meaningful to believe in, of any kind.

Having said that, you can see where Kerouac is at by his obsessive bias towards the first noble truth of the Buddha; life is suffering. This truth summarised how he had always felt, intensifying as he got older, and so it's no wonder that he tries to get some meaning from Buddhist doctrine. Beyond the scope of this book, he failed drastically, because as a rule he hated himself too much, and perhaps never believed he deserved enlightenment. But it explains his hero worship of Japhy Ryder (Gary Snyder) in The Dharma Bums, who does achieve the feat of taking himself seriously as a Buddhist even as he picks and chooses from the texts.

The story, as such, is concerned with the lives and philosophies of a broad circle of mostly San Francisco beat poets and hangers on, but centres around Snyder and Kerouac (Ray Smith in the book), as they climb mountains, travel around, and search for the truth (Dharma). Whilst they do achieve a certain sense of calm when alone, they also throw themselves wholeheartedly into hedonism whenever possible. So a central Buddhist goal - the freedom from desire - was clearly not high on their list of priorities, a glaring hypocrisy that in some ways is the real point of the book. Later on, the book also briefly chronicles Kerouac's summer on Desolation Peak, which (mostly for Ryder's benefit, you sense) he seems to find fairly peaceful. A piece of selective writing indeed, because in fact that summer nearly drove him crazy.

Essentially, this book is a treatise on how NOT to follow the right Buddhist paths, and despite his earnestness, it often feels like Kerouac knows this deep down. He knows that he is chipping at the surface and is never going to truly believe, or gain real enlightenment. Even when he finds a degree of peace in the woods near his mother's house, it is being alone he temporarily treasures, and you get the impression he is enlightened only in as much as he feels comfortable with himself for once.

A few years after this book was written, Kerouac refused to see Gary Snyder, because he was ashamed at how far he'd fallen, and what a drunk he'd become. He never felt himself worthy, of anyone or anything. That seemed to be his problem throughout life, and you sense this insecurity extremely clearly in this book. But you also realise that Kerouac is as good a man as Snyder, or any of them, it's just that he doesn't think so himself.

This is a slightly harder read that some of Kerouac's other stuff, because it sometimes feels that he's not convinced about some of the philosophy himself, and so the writing sometimes feels a bit stilted. Having said that, it still gets five stars from me, because as an insight into the mind of Jack Kerouac, which is surely what anyone wants from his books, it is second to none.
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on 19 September 2008
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, it doesn't have an explosive story line but I don't think by any means that that makes the novel weak. I even envied Ray Smith's views on life and fearless attitude. Kerouac shows us how important it is to enjoy 'the simple things' in life, the things that don't cost money, and the things that are most beautiful. For me, The Dharma Bums was a really heartwarming read that let me escape reality for 204 pages!

''like a little girl pulling her brother home on the sled and they're both singing little ditties of their imagination and making faces at the ground and just being themselves before they have to go in the kitchen and put on a straight face again for the world of seriousness''
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on 19 April 2012
Although The Dharma Bums was published in 1958, the semi-fictionalised events it describes all occurred prior to the publication of On The Road a year ealier. On The Road was itself written in 1951 taking years to find a publisher. The interesting thing therefore about The Dharma Bums is that it describes Jack Kerouac (Ray Smith in the novel) before the fame of On The Road struck. And it literally did strike both with a suddenness and a force from which he would never truly recover.

The Dharma Bums is very much a novel about someone searching for a foothold in life, a way of being, of expressing yourself that is both true and honest but does not entirely lead to alienation from society. Jack Kerouac, in many of his novels, although this one in particular, is constantly battling with his yearning for spirituality and peace against the reckless nature that would ultimately lead to his death in 1969 at the age of 47.

Although narrated by Ray Smith (Jack Kerouac), the central character of the novel is Japhy Ryder (poet Gary Snyder). Japhy represents all that Ray strives to be - a woodsman, a mountain-climber, entrenched in Buddhism, a revered poet - and he still gets all the girls! Ray is forever following, literally, in Japhy's footsteps but he is never quite able to emulate him. Even when they make their beautifully described attempt to climb Matterhorn, Ray stops a hundred feet short whilst Japhy dances around on the peak.

When Ray is not with Japhy, he spends time hitch-hiking back to his mother and whilst there plays the part of the deep thinker, sleeping under the trees, going for long walks and trying to get his family to understand why lives the way he does. Ultimately his reasoning comes across as shallow and entirely out of context with the daily struggles of his sister and brother-in-law. Even when riding the rails or hitching lifts, Ray invariably has money in his pocket should he get tired of the travelling. And he is not always the most grateful of passengers, becoming angry on one occasion, having hitched a ride, when a mother gets baby food on his new rucksack. The whole dichotomy so familiar to so many of us is the putting into practice the spritual and humane beliefs we hold to be true. In Japhy Ryder we have someone who is able to do that more often than not. In Ray Smith we have a man who just falls short, a voyeur, a man who won't allow himself to fully let go.
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It's interesting to read the reviews here: people criticizing Kerouac for getting Buddhism wrong, or even for being a second-rate writer. I think both of these statements are wrong.

The Dharma Bums is, as are all Kerouac novels, autobiographical. It relates Kerouac's experiences after he met Gary Snyder (Japhy Ryder in the book). Kerouac, influenced by Snyder, started exploring Buddhism, but, unlike Snyder, did so on his own. This naturally leads to lots of misconceptions, but this novel recounts his experiences subjectively, and doesn't try to present some sort of gospel.

The story is as rolicking as On the Road. This time, the movement is less horizontal (across the United States) as vertical (up mountains). Kerouac climbed the Matterhorn (the one in California) with Snyder, and eventually became a fire lookout in the mountains for a summer. During that period, he faced himself squarely, and, while in The Dharma Bums, there's not much soul-searching, that occurs in the "sequel" Desolation Angels.

I would understand the "second-rate writer" comment several decades ago, when Kerouac's style was unique, but now? He's well recognized as one of the most influential voices of his generation, and The Dharma Bums is certainly one of the most important books of his to read, after On the Road.
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on 5 March 2008
The energy of this novel flows along like electricity when Ray Smith is hitch-hiking, drinking or bumming around Mexican backstreets. Kerouac writes feverishly and captures people, sights, sounds and smells so vividly that you really ache to experience them alongside him.

If only he'd stuck to this tried and tested recipe.

When Kerouac obsesses about Buddhism - the central and weakly rendered theme of this book - things lose their spark and his prose gets bogged down in inarticulate drivel. If the narrative had offered any true understanding of Buddhist teachings, I may well have embraced it more. But The Dharma Bums simply hand-picks elements from an ancient religion and turns them into a half-baked American excuse for sloth, self-indulgence and the worst kind of cultural conceit.

Witness how Japhy - the supposed prophet, genius and sage - uses the Tibetan practice of 'yabyum' (not even given a cursorary explanation in the text) purely to seduce as many girls as possible. Witness how Ray Smith seeks unparalleled purity but drinks, smokes and abuses drugs. The Buddhism portrayed in these pages is a Buddhism of convenience that anyone can dip into and out of whenever they please; that anyone can use to denounce the actions of another; that gets anyone out of difficult intellectual scrapes with a few mystic-sounding riddles...

Frankly, it began to annoy me and I suspect a true Buddhist would view this as a gross contamination of his/her core values. I almost laughed out loud when Ray Smith became so enlightened (by sitting in his mother's yard, unemployed for months) that he thought himself capable of miracles (because his mum's sore throat goes away) - but decides not to heal anyone else: "...because I was afraid of getting too interested in this and becoming vain. I was a little scared of all the responsibility." What humility!

What with the many passages of badly coined language and all these watery attempts at getting to the root of profound philosophical subjects, I found the novel ultimately to be childish and cringe-worthy.

But as I said at the start, when he's bumming around and chronicling the highways and byways of 1950s America, Kerouac's style is impeccable. That's why this offering is so amateur and polished by turns. I did enjoy it, but man - if you're going to preach, learn your subject!
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on 8 January 2013
A classic from "The King of the Beats" a title he wasn't happy about. In this book he is in search for the spiritual life via Buddhism and he hooks up with a kindred spirit, a Buddhist drop out, Japhy Rider in the book who was the poet Gary Snyder in real life. And we learn about their hikes up in the Sierra Mountains, and it is said that this book was the beginning of the so called "Rucksack revolution" The beginning of the cultural revolution of the sixties. It has inspired a whole generation of younger Americans to seek for the spiritual knowledge and different lifestyle. A great read if you are interested in the subject.
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on 4 April 2013
Like most I'd read 'On the Road' and expected something similar. The descriptive prose seemed richer to me in 'Dharma Bums'; an unbelievable feat of writing. Jack, thro the character of Ray tells more of his work and travelling life, climbing Matterhorn with his hero pal, Japhy, his growing interest in Zen Buddhism and conveys to the reader in emotional and factual layering, his feelings about where the US may be going in the 1950's. Acknowledging his first faith Catholicism, Jack (Ray) realises that it will be ever ingrained in him but experiments with his spiritual journey exploring his new 'Jesus', Buddha. So like all prophets, the friends search for answers in a modern world that seems to their eyes to be lost spiritually. However, this does not dampen their determination to 'party' in extremis when the mood takes them, and Jack (Ray) seems to enjoy this side even more than his main guru pal, Japhy. He admires Japhy to the point of 'worship' and attempts similar spiritual status which he believes Japhy has attained. Jack name drops writer friends, such as Ginsberg who he 'hangs out' with in the city and you can sense he is impressed moving in these creative circles on a personal level. I found it a touchingly interesting experience packed with lovely descriptive tracts of natural surroundings, feelings for family, friends and above all for me it was bit of an education not only in Zen Buddhism, but a new and further insight to Kerouac's deep emotional intellect and his incredible ability as a writer to take you on a trip deep inside his world.
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VINE VOICEon 30 May 2011
I chose Dharma Bums after seeing it on the recommended shelf at my local book-store. I've read - and enjoyed - On the Road and several biographies of Kerouac, so it seemed a wise choice.

A lot of the first half of the book is taken up by a description of a hike up a Californian mountain by Ray Smith with his friend and Buddhist guru Japhy Ryder. They're joined by an eccentric university librarian called Henry Morley, who keeps making 'incomprehensible, secret-meaning' jokes.

I enjoyed the first part of the novel, as Smith describes his life in San Francisco and his initial encounters with Japhy. They really evoked the hippy spirit of the city and the early years of the beat movement in the 50s. Unfortunately, the character of Morley completely unbalanced the story for me. It's almost as if he's from a sitcom, as he takes all manner of modern camping conveniences (from the Army and Navy Store) with him on the trek, in contrast to the nuts and dried berries which Japhy has packed.

It's unclear whether Morley is meant to provide some comic relief, but for me he's just annoying, and the humour (if that is what it is) sits uncomfortably with Smith's nascent interest in Buddhism.

Overall, then, the tone of the book for me is uncertain and at times made for rather disappointing reading.
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on 25 June 2009
I think this is an excellent novel by Kerouac but not my favourite and probably not his best; that is definitely `On the Road'. This book is still superb though and still manages to capture the energy which Kerouac evokes in his other works.

There is a lot relating to Buddhism in this, which leads me to my favourite part in the book when he is at the top of the mountain looking down at the `upside down world. Great book great Kerouac.
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