Tuesday, September 25, 2012

The Dharma Bums

by Jack Kerouac

Ray Smith (a stand-in for Kerouac himself), an itinerant poet, and his friend Japhy Ryder (Gary Snyder) search for an affirmative way of life in the mindless bustle of the modern era.  Preferring cabins and hiking to cities and desk jobs, the two live a Bohemian existence, getting drunk, bedding willing girls, and reciting haikus when inspiration strikes.  Parties that last days and involve casual nudity and sex (though Ray seems to be eschewing sex, or simply can’t get lucky), hitch-hiking, poetry readings, and hikes to Desolation Peak are funded by the occasional job as a fire watcher up in the mountains.  Along with other poets who live similar lives (every character is a pastiche of one of the figures in the Beat movement), they try to live a western version of Buddhism; they have differing ideas on how to live the dharma way, but call themselves equally bhikkhus (monks) and have good intentions. What they have in common is an inability to abide, or intense distaste for, the middle-class way of life in 1950s America.  Ray stays on his mother’s property and spends his nights meditating, derided as a bum by his brother-in-law; Japhy sets out for a lengthy retreat in Japan.

Primary to this soulful novel is an honest, exuberant search for a life full of meaning – not necessarily a stoic life or even one beyond material concerns, but a meaningful one.  Reading this novel at past forty, with my own insignificant flirtations with Buddhism, Zen, hitch-hiking and so on behind me, I’m not sure it has the power to move me.  It probably retains the power to inspire even this modern generation of starry-eyed college students, however, if they could get past the sometimes primitive attitudes toward women Kerouac seems to have had.  The novel is a little goofy and a bit slipshod in places (he accidentally calls Zaphy “Gary” once), but Ray is a charming, guileless character, and maintains a quiet assurance in the ability for a clear-eyed person to make his own truth.

three stars

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