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.
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.
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!
on 17 January 2014
The book I'm reviewing here is the Penguin Modern Classics Kindle version, ASIN B005D6BCJY. In the intro, Ann Douglas explains who the real people and events Kerouac describes were (I'd known it was autobiographical but didn't know how precise his cyphers were for real individuals, including the night of the San Francisco Renaissance in poetry.) The Kindle text is well formatted and easy on the eye.
That said, one small flaw is that the (hyperlinked) table of contents is a plain 1, 2,3, 4 list of chapters. Adding the first line of each chapter would have helped navigate what is, by definition, a rambling and stream-of-consciousness novel.
You can't go wrong with great writers and the benefit of hindsight, so we buy these editions (if we're honest) for how good they look on our bookshelf (real or virtual.) And with cover designs, Penguin's still getting it right after 50 years. A good edition of a classic.
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.
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.
on 14 October 2003
Some people wonder what all the hype is about with Kerouac. Even I have found some of his other works tiring in places, although there is no doubting his unique style and his genius.
Dharma Bums is my favourite - not just my favourite Kerouac but quite possibly my favourite book ever. Gentle and easy to read it is also at times evocative and deep. It touches on Zen Buddhism without trying to be clever or philisophical and is in some ways sad and in others heartwarming.
If you've ever struggled with Kerouac, or Zen for that matter, this is a good place to start again.
on 30 April 2002
...this short novel is one of his better works.
OK, so it's not as sharp a prosody as "On the Road", but then Kerouac is dwelling in heavier waters, deeply immersed in Buddhist teachings and enlightened hobo-wanderings.
He again has his muse - the startlingly grounded Japhy Ryder (a metamorphosis of poet Gary Snyder), a far cry from the hard-drinking Dean Moriaty.
He again has his America, not the astral-jazz urban America of the Subterraneans or Road, but the desolate America of dead trails and unbearable space.
Existentialist moments up the mountain are burdened by a holy loneliness, dulled by wine and Kerouac's ...wide-eyed naivety. But then written pre-Flower Generation, pre-Vietnam, pre-AIDS, an exultation of existence was a viable option rather than a cynical rejoinder.
on 9 March 2010
The book starts off well with Kerouac meeting a young student of Zen Buddhism called Japhy Ryder and the two decide to climb the Matterhorn. I've been out to the Sierras myself and enjoyed the descriptions of the scenery, it reminded me of my time up there, sleeping in the forest, waking up in my sleeping bag covered in snow. It's really beautiful writing, and the story (a rarity for Kerouac, having a story) rushes forwards. There's also a nice buildup with Kerouac hopping freights, sleeping on beaches under the stars, etc. It's what makes Kerouac the writer he is. Kerouac, Ryder and Ginsberg have some nice back and forths debating poetry. Ginsberg's cynicism of Buddhism makes for an interesting and funny debate.
After the Matterhorn episode though, around page 80, the story is basically told. Kerouac has no idea how to progress the remaining 100 pages. I guess the point of the book was to talk about Buddhism but I never felt Kerouac was a serious student of it. Buddhism promotes abstinence of sex, drugs, drinking, all of which Kerouac partakes of frequently. He's like a lot of people I know who are into Buddhism - they take the parts they like and pretend they're the real thing. They're not, and neither is Kerouac.
Unfortunately, Kerouac's writing becomes even more meandering as he rambles on with pseudo-profound writing. Here's an actual quote which he thinks is enlightening: "Form is emptiness and emptiness is form and we're here forever in one form or another which is empty". See what I mean? And this goes on for 100 pages!
"On the Road" wasn't as revelatory to me as it was to some of my friends. It was disjointed, a bit annoying, not nearly as clever or interesting as it thought it was and ultimately quite boring. 10 years later, I decide to give him another try with "Dharma Bums" and initially I thought it was going to be great. What happened was that Kerouac's enthusiasm and naivety got in the way of the writing.
It would be too easy to type down passages from the book that shows how shallow the book's attempts at mysticism are or how Kerouac's writing makes him sound like a wide eyed innocent and inexperienced 13 year old from the country setting foot in the city for the first time. Suffice it to say, if you didn't like "On the Road" you won't like this. Nor will you if you are a student of Buddhism. If you like Kerouac or are 15 years old, you'll probably get a kick out of this.
on 25 July 2016
Read this as a young man and was forever coloured by it. I recently re-read it, sporadically, over probably a two year period from my hammock as I too ventured into the mountains, just a few pages at a time as I rocked gently under a canopy of leaves. Not everybody gets Kerouac but if your world view is fluid and constantly changing, if you have a taste for adventure and spiritual engagement and your prepared to break a few rules along the way his writings are essential reading. Bums see's Kerouac at his most optimistic and driven, the study of Buddhism has fired his adventures, he is embracing temperance but has lost non of his taste for adventure as he turns to the mountains for peace from the madding world and to deepen his meditations and and quest for truth. It's the writing style that nails it, his famous stream of consciousness, poetic style that is so evocative and immersing. He writes in the style of an abstract painter, vivid, bristling with life and unbridled optimism. That some consider him an amateur Buddhist is beside the point, we are all amateurs at some point are we not? That his book is so incredibly evocative and engaging that I read it a few pages at a time over two years in the Scottish mountains is a testament to his power as a writer and his ability to touch his audience.