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The Dharma Bums is, along with The Town and the City and On the Road, one of Kerouac's most conventional novels, but is no less enjoyable for that. It is a relatively simple story, written in a relatively simple style that perfectly suits the actual narrative - two men in mid-fifties America trying to get back to nature, using Buddhism as the impetus. As always with Kerouac, there are some beautiful passages of prose, and his accounts of the two main protaganist's camping and mountain-climbing is highly evocative and makes you want to be a part of that world. The book dips slightly whenever Kerouac leaves this territory. It is probably a perfect introductory read for anyone not yet intimately acquainted with Kerouac's other works, and for that reason will always, for this reader anyway, come a distant second to major Kerouac classics such as The Subterraneans, Doctor Sax, or especially the magnificent Visions of Cody.
When Jack Kerouac's classic novel 'On The Road' was published the author gained a reputation for being a writer whose subject of interest was street hustler debauchery, crazy youth, drugs and sex. What a lot of critics of the time didn't acknowledge as much in the work was the deep awareness of spirituality in Kerouac's prose.
Kerouac was a dedicated Catholic who became interested in Buddhism after forming friendships with intellectuals who practised the religion. While Kerouac could never quite forsake his Catholic roots he did embrace the ideas and teachings of Buddhism, picking and choosing aspects of the rituals and Buddhist writings that appealed to him. When he wrote his novel 'The Dharma Bums' he was still learning a lot about this new religion and philosophy and much of what he writes about is based on his feelings and personal interpretations rather than substantial facts. Kerouac is clearly on a quest to drink from the well of spiritual wisdom and here he charts the lessons in life that are helping him on his way to find the ultimate 'truth'.
The novel is a semi-autobiographical account of Kerouac's life and follows the events that were explained in 'On The Road'. The names of Kerouac's contemporaries were changed to protect their identities. The character of Ray Smith represents the author whilst Japhy Ryder is the poet Gary Snyder.
Ray (Snyder) discusses his physical and spiritual journeys in America and in particular discusses his interactions with his Buddhist buddies and the effect this has on him. There are several noteworthy moments in the novel including Kerouac's interpretation of the famous 'Six Gallery' poetry reading - an event that accelerated the fame of his friends among whom Allen Ginsberg was most prolific.
Kerouac's relationships with and/or observations of the poor or the homeless, street hustlers, cowboys, junkies and crazies is something that is very important in the novel. Kerouac elevates these 'nowhere' people to angel status and in his lavish, tender and dedicated descriptions he makes us feel sympathy and love for the low and the 'beat' on Earth.
A central part of the novel is Ray's attempt to climb a mountain to gain spiritual enlightenment. In the desolation of the environment and exhausted, Ray begins to contemplate life and process his spiritual lessons. The intricate descriptions of the highly personal thoughts and feelings are very touching and inspirational. Yet Kerouac's life lessons are never preachy or obviously didactic - they are always subtle and sweet. There is a real sense of honesty and the tone of the writing is sometimes funny and sometimes sad. Kerouac's humour is quite wacky but his exultation often boomerangs with a sense of gloom and lovesickness for Heaven. There is always the sense that Kerouac is speaking for all of us when his existential musings come into play. At one point he assesses himself and his choices in life: "I am imperfect Ray Smith, all at the same time, I am empty space, I am all things. I have all the time in the world...to do the timeless doing, infinitely perfect within, why cry, why worry, perfect like mind essence and the minds of banana peels".
The novel's style is similar to 'On The Road' with that same frenetic energy informing the writing style. I would say that Kerouac's spontaneous prose method is even more obvious here though as many time sentences and speech run into one another, poems and descriptions and sometimes words that don't seem to have any place or meaning just spilling out onto the page. It is an exhilarating style and one that helps to express that mad, excitable energy that was invigorating the youth of the generation.
There is a sense in the novel that there are two separate realities in play. In one of his lives Kerouac (or Ray Smith) indulges in the party scene and city action and there is a sense of drunkenness with confused passions and babbled, overflowing conversation. The other part of the novel sees Kerouac retreat to the natural world where he can indulge his inner monologue and everything feels and sounds very different. The landscape is one of peace and demands contemplation. Kerouac's description of everything is unique and he plays with language like no other author has ever done. It is a beautiful, mesmerising style of writing that has a childish innocence combined with a streetwise headiness at its heart.
The novel is not as racy as 'On The Road' and Kerouac's spiritual focus and knowledge was perhaps given even greater attention in his epic novel 'Desolation Angels'. However, this is one of Kerouac's best books and is a must read for any fan of the author. It is an entertaining and moving account of one man's journey to find answers.
'The Dharma Bums' (1958) is a beautiful book written by Beat writer Jack Kerouac. The story is thouhgt to be semi autobiographical and follows Ray Smith (again thought to be based upon Kerouac himself) as he lives the life of a 'beat' and a 'bum', meeting interesting characters along the way and learning about himself on this voyage of self discovery.
The significant characters he meets include Japhy Ryder (arguably based on other prolific 'beat' writer and poet Gary Snyder), Henry Morley (John Montgomery) and Alvah Goldbrook (beat poet Allen Ginsberg). Meeting Japhy Ryder, a man who attepmts to fully embrace a naturistic and Buddhist way of life, living in a wooden hut he built himself at the top of a mountain, for example, Ray Smith is mentored by him and sometimes agrees with his ideas and at other times their ideas clash (over Japhy's liberated sexual habits, for example). There are moments of tranquil meditation and peacefulness, as well as action within the book, such as when the friends climb the Matterhorn mountain.
The novel explores the life of the Beats and the world of the Beat Generation and movement. There are deep and contemplative ideas and discussions which in many ways, Kerouac manages to have with his reader as well as the other characters. Moral issues and religious ideas are explored which make the novel both compelling and inspirational as well as thought provoking; the reader learns to question their own beliefs and ideas.
The novel, therefore, has its morals and champions a Buddhist orientated view on life, respecting all animals and people and nature, etc, but at the same time, the novel is not didactic, nor indeed perfect. Kerouac does not have any hint of superiority, he doesn't suggest that he or his knowledge are superior to the readers', rather he simply shares his experiences/ideas, in a truely selfless, Buddhist manner, believing that his experiences and life lessons can help others also. And he doesn't shy away from admitting that other people have taught him alot too.
The book is respectful and it encourages the same respect in the reader, and I found it inspiring; it creates a yearning to be close to nature and to evaluate what we do with our lives, opening our eyes to the idea that maybe we get swamped sometimes by the modern world's technology and the media and everybody elses lives (celebrities etc) which are boradcast constantly when we really ought to focus on our lives and those of the people clostest to us and those people who need our help. The book really is a great platform to get the mind thinking and the reader can take from it what they want; they can learn from ideas within the novel, and they can also come to better udnerstand themselves and their own ideas.
This book is arguably all about opening the 'inner eye' and I would recommend it highly for anybody with an interest in the Beat Generation, Buddhism or simply spirituality and an interest in contemplation, meditation and learning about the self. It's a great spiritual adventure really.