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4.2 out of 5 stars
4.2 out of 5 stars
The Dharma Bums (Penguin Modern Classics)
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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.
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on 23 November 2003
Following the huge success of 'On The Road' Kerouac had the chance to publish some of his manuscripts that he had been carrying around the country from house to house for nearly ten years.
One of the first was the magnificent 'Dharma Bums', a semi-autobiographical account of his time on the West Coast in the company of Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg. Kerouac portrays himself as 'Ray Smith' and Snyder appears as the hero of the piece, a mountain-conquering poet Japhy Ryder. Ginsberg is thinly disguised as Alva Goldbook.
The piece centres on Kerouac and Snyder's trip into the mountains and the poetry scene around San Francisco in the mid 1950s. The famous 6 gallery reading that kicked off the Beat revolution is fictionalised.
A beautifully observed book, full of the lightness of the mountains and the allure of Buddhism, it is Kerouac at his finest. It lacks the relentless energy of 'On The Road', but has instead a simple charm of its own. One of the first books that kick-started the 'rucksack revolution', a must for the secret hippy in all of us.
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on 15 August 2017
Complete and utter rubbish. Don't even think of buying it.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 5 January 2010
Following the success of "On the Road", Kerouac's publishers initially rejected his manuscripts such as "The Subterraneans" and "Tristessa." But his publisher asked him to write an accessible, popular novel continuing with the themes of "On the Road." Kerouac responded with "The Dharma Bums" which was published late in 1958. "The Dharma Bums" is more conventionally written that most of Kerouac's other books, with short, generally clear sentences and a story line that is optimistic on the whole. The book was critiqued by Allen Ginsberg and others close to Kerouac as a "travelogue" and as over-sentimentalized. But with the exception of "On the Road", "The Dharma Bums" remains Kerouac's most widely read work. I had the opportunity to reread "The Dharma Bums" and came away from the book deeply moved.

As are all of Kerouac's novels, "The Dharma Bums" is autobiographical. It is based upon Kerouac's life between 1956--1957 -- before "On the Road" appeared and made Kerouac famous. The book focuses upon the relationship between Kerouac, who in the book is called Ray Smith and his friend, the poet Gary Snyder, called Japhy Ryder, ten years Kerouac's junior. Kerouac died in 1969, while Snyder is still alive and a highly regarded poet. Allen Ginsberg (Alvah Goldbrook) and Neal Cassady (Cody Pomeray), among others, also are characters in the book. Most of the book is set in San Francisco and its environs, but there are scenes of Kerouac's restless and extensive travelling by hitchiking, walking, jumping freight trains, and taking buses, as he visits Mexico, and his mother's home in Rocky Mount, North Carolina during the course of the book.

The strenght of "The Dharma Bums" lies in its scenes of spiritual seriousness and meditation. During the period described in the book, Kerouac had become greatly interested in Buddhism. He describes himself as a "bhikku" -- a Buddhist monk -- and had been celibate for a year when the book begins. I have been studying Buddhism myself for many years, and it is easy to underestimate Kerouac's understanding of Buddhism. As with many authors, he was wiser in his writing that he was in his life. There is a sense of the sadness and changeable character of existence and of the value of compassion for all beings that comes through eloquently in "The Dharma Bums." Smith and Ryder have many discussions about Buddhism -- at various levels of seriousness -- during the course of the novel. Ryder tends to use Buddhism to be critical of and alienated from American society and its excessive materialism and devotion to frivolity such as television. Smith has the broader vision and sees compassion and understanding as a necessary part of the lives of everyone. Smith tends to be more meditative and quiet in his Buddhist practice -- he spends a great deal of time in the book sitting and "doing nothing" while Ryder is generally active and on the go, hiking, chopping wood, studying, or womanizing. At the end of the book, he leaves for an extended trip to Japan. (He and Kerouac would never see each other again.)

"The Dharma Bums" offers a picture of a portion of American Buddhism during the 1950s. It also offers a portrayal of what has been called the "rucksack revolution" as Smith and Ryder take to the outdoors, and, in a lengthy and famous section of the book, climb the "Matterhorn" in California's Sierra Mountains. In the final chapters of the book, Kerouac spends eight isolated weeks on Desolation Peak in the Cascades as a fire watchman. He comes back yearning for human company.

Sexuality plays an important role in the book, against the backdrop of what is described as the repressed 1950's, as young girls are drawn to Ryder and he willingly shares them with an initially reluctant Smith. The book includes scenes of wild parties tinged, for Smith, with sadness, in which people of both sexes dance naked, get physically involved, and drink heavily. Near the end of the book, Ryder offers Smith a prophetic warning the alcoholism which would shortly thereafter ruin Kerouac's life.

"The Dharma Bums" is a fundamentally American book and it is full of love for the places of America, for the opportunity it offers for spiritual exploration, and for its people. Kerouac's compassion was hard earned. In his introduction to a later book, "The Lonesome Traveller" Kerouac aptly described his books as involving the "preachment of universal kindness, which hysterial critics have failed to notice beneath frenetic activity of my true-story novels about the 'beat' generation. -- Am actually not 'beat' but strange solitary crazy Catholic mystic." I found a feeling of spirituality, of love of life in the face of vicissitudes, and of America in "The Dharma Bums." The work was indeed a popularization. But Kerouac's vision may ultimately have been broad.

Robin Friedman
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on 17 March 2000
Read this book outside of the context of what happened afterward--the 60's, the perversion of Kerouac's 'vision', etc. This is a pure book of a spiritual quest, a chronicle of Kerouac at the height of his life and literary powers, continued in Desolation Angels; Dharma Bums is the prequel to that awesome book, but while DB is the innocence of discovery, Desolation Angels contiunues the story, but falls into the despair of reality. Dharma Bums is an uplifting, hopeful book, and the only tragedy is that Kerouac's life couldn't continue in this vein. Read this book!
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on 7 May 2016
It's over 50 years since I read the Dharma bums

It almost certainly changed my life

Thank you book

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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.
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on 29 February 2004
To my mind this is the best of the Kerouac books I have read, certainly better than the overrated 'On The Road' and slightly more enjoyable than 'Big Sur'. 'The Dharma Bums' takes the best bits of Kerouac's slacker travelling tales and late night parties and boozing and mixes it with an appreciation and enjoyment for the Great Outdoors. Thrown in for good measure is a healthy dose of Bhuddist ideals and ways of life, which all combine to make for a very enjoyable and refreshing read. Highly recommended.
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on 4 November 2014
I have just finished reading this book - was quite sad to reach the final page!
This is the first Kerouac book I have ever read, I bought it after reading a reference to it in a Zen poetry book. Really enjoyed the read and I love the way he writes and the characters (which I understand are based on real people). Definitely recommended.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon 10 March 2011
I love this book. I recently re-read it, about 20 years after first reading it in my late-teens, and I still thoroughly enjoyed it.

Having said this, I read - and enjoyed - Rusty's review of it, and think some of the points made there are very valid. So how do I still rate this five star? Well, basically what Kerouac excels at is capturing mood and energy. But beware, like the author's own predilictions for what's now called self-soothing, Kerouac deals in dangerous emotional narcotics. It's seductive, poetic, beautiful, and often very, very sad. In many respects Kerouac's personal demons - his relationships with his family, especially his mother, booze, and religion, not to mention the people in his life, from lovers, wives, and children, to friends, co-workers and peers, etc: there was a lot of what might nowadays be called 'conflicted' emotions - and his struggles and shortcomings, are the key to why he's so successful and appealing.

Personally I take issue with the idea that he didn't really know his Buddhism, and, beyond that, I don't even really care - Buddhism is just another fundamentally flawed attempt to comprehend and deal with life on earth - there are as many versions of Buddhism out there as any other creed or religion (I know, I know, Buddhists, especially so-called Western Buddhists, don't like the creed to be called a religion, but, as someone who's attended meditation classes for over 20 years, I can safely say that the way Buddha is viewed it boils down to the same thing as deity worship). I think Kerouac had both enough intelligence to understand religion, be it Catholicism, which he could never quite shake-off, or the Buddhism that was becoming popular in the West, and yet was candidly human enough to expose his own flaws and foibles, and it's precisely this that means many readers can identify with his yearnings, no matter how foolish they may be.

I think my biggest criticism of this book is how it might affect the youthful reader, as it did me: Kerouac, a great and inspiring writer (in my opinion), overall, makes for a poor role model. My several copies of this book all pre-date the Penguin Modern Classic that I'm attaching this review to, but have a good look at Kerouac on the cover of this latest imprint, and you'll see a man already on the downward side off his life/career arc, and his descent into apathy and alcoholism wasn't a pretty thing to behold.

But, as a book, The Dharma Bums captures a magical time, and, as far as I'm concerned, is beautifully written: from the cosy night time reveries dossing at home with mum, to the energised hikes in the hills with Gary 'Japhy Ryder' Snyder, this is an exciting and compelling story.
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