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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Kerouac searching for something to believe in, 29 Jun 2009
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This review is from: The Dharma Bums (Penguin Modern Classics) (Paperback)
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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