The Dharma Bums
Jack Kerouac
Penguin Books, New York (USA), 1986 (1958)
244 pages

I must admit I have always maintained an ambiguous attitude towards Jack Kerouac's literature. Great icon of the so-called beat generation, his books were (and are) revered by plenty of young people with a rebellious (or, at the very least, critical) attitude. Kerouac represents the constant yearning for individual freedom (no, not just from the Government, like so many ultraconservatives prefer to frame it these days, but also from all social institutions that are seen as constraining one's own development, which would include the school, the corporations and the family, among many others), the anarchic, chaotic, crazy, almost lunatic passion to live. All that is true. Yet, on the other hand, I must confess that I find a good part of what he writes quite mediocre, insubstantial and self-centered. I get the feeling that, if it were not for the fact that he recorded the crazy parties and the strange conversations that took place between him and a select group of friends who would also become famous American writers (people like Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs or Gary Snyder, among many others), as well as the particular social and historical circumstances where he wrote his books, most of his work would be considered second-rate, actually.

Said that, I must also acknowledge that The Dharma Bums is, perhaps, one of his most readable (and enjoyable) books. As many of Kerouac's books, this is a semi-fictional story based on real events that occurred at some point after what he narrated in his famous On the Road. The main characters are Ray Smith, based on Jack Kerouac's himself, and Japhy Ryder, based on the poet Gary Snyder, who introduced the author Buddhism in the mid-1950s. The plot shifts from their city experiences (dominated by parties, sex and discussions on religion and other deep topics) to their adventures hiking in nature (which, they feel, gets them closer to the sublime and transcendent), as well as hitchhiking and, basically, wandering around in what appears to be an aimless trip (the life of a bum, but not just any bum, since they are inspired by a sense of quest). Towards the end of the book, Kerouac work as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak.

We get the feeling of the story already from the very beginning, where it becomes clear that Kerouac is living the life of a wanderer:

Hopping a freight out of Los Angeles at high noon one day in late September 1955 I got on a gondola and lay down with my duffel bag under my head and my knees crossed and contemplated the clouds as we rolled north to Santa Barbara. It was a local and I intended to sleep on the beach at Santa Barbara that night and catch either another local to San Luis Obispo the next morning or the firstclass freight all the way to San Francisco at seven p.m. Somewhere near Camarillo where Charlie Parker'd been mad and relaxed back to normal health, a thin old little bum climbed into my gondola as we headed into a siding to give a train right of way and looked surprised to see me there. He established himself at the other end of the gondola and lay down, facing me, with his head on his own miserably small pack and said nothing. By and by they blew the highball whistle after the eastbound freight had smashed through on the main line and we pulled out as the air got colder and fog began to blow from the sea over the warm valleys of the coast. Both the little bum and I, after unsuccessful attempts to huddle on the cold steel in wraparounds, got up and paced back and forth and jumped and flapped arms at each our end of the gon. Pretty soon we headed into another siding at a small railroad town and I figured I needed a poor-boy Tokay wine to complete the cold dusk run to Santa Barbara. "Will you watch my pack while I run over there and get a bottle of wine?"

"Sure thing."

I jumped over the side and ran across Highway 101 to the store, and bought, besides wine, a little bread and candy. I ran back to my freight train which had another fifteen minutes to wait in the now warm sunny scene. But it was late afternoon and bound to get cold soon. The little bum was sitting crosslegged at his end before a pitiful repast of one can of sardines. I took pity on him and went over and said, "How about a little wine to warm you up? Maybe you'd like some bread and cheese with your sardines."

(Jack Kerouac: The Dharma Bums, pp. 3-4)

To sum up, we start with the highly romanticized image of the hobo, which the beatniks would convert in a very successful meme in the 1960s. It became so successful indeed that it even spawned a whole series of travel guides, the Globetrotter travel guide. Also, notice another important element to notice in this quote is the overpresence of alcohol, a constant in Kerouac, to be sure. There is a place in the book where even Japhy tells Smith how he depends too much on the stuff. No kidding. Of course, that brings up a completely different topic, that of the overall unhealthy attitude that American society seems to have towards alcohol. One wonders where it comes from.

There is no doubt Kerouac's friends are an interesting bunch. That's for sure. But, to him, they are a few among plenty of others who are seeking something new. He senses in the air that lots of American at that time were deeply unsatisfied with the mainstream lifestyle and were desperately searching for something new, something different. They were open to new and old ideas, including those coming from the old East. In that sense, it is clear that Kerouac managed to describe the shifting tectonic plates of his age in this book:

The little Saint Teresa bum was the first genuine Dharma Bum I'd met, and the second was the number one Dharma Bum of them all and in fact it was he, Japhy Ryder, who coined the phrase. Japhy Ryder was a kid from eastern Oregon brought up in a log cabin deep in the woods with his father and mother and sister, from the beginning a woods boy, an axman, farmer, interested in animals and Indian lore so that when he finally got to college by hook or crook he was already well equipped for his early studies in anthropology and later in Indian myth and in the actual texts of Indian mythology. Finally he learned Chinese and Japanese and became an Oriental scholar and discovered the greatest Dharma Bums of them all, the Zen Lunatics of China and Japan. At the same time, being a Northwest boy with idealistic tendencies, he got interested in oldfashioned I.W.W. anarchism and learned to play the guitar and sing old worker songs to go with his Indian songs and generl folksong interests. I first saw him walking down the street in San Francisco the following week (after hitchhiking the rest of the way from Santa Barbara in one long zipping ride given me, as though anyboy'll bellieve this, by a beautiful darling young blonde in a snow-white strapless bathing suit and barefooted with a gold bracelet on her ankle, driving a next-year's cinnamon-red Lincoln Mercury, who wanted benzedrine so she could drive all the way to the City and when I said I had some in my duffel bag yelled "Crazy!") —I saw Japhy loping along in that curious long stride of the mountainclimber, with a small knapsack on his back filled with books and toothbrushes and whatnot which was his small "going-to-the-city" knapsack as apart from his big full rucksack complete with sleeping bag, poncho, and cookpots. He wore a little goatee, strangely Oriental-looking with his somewhat slanted green eyes, but he didn't look like a Bohemian at all, and was far from being a Bohemian (a hanger-onner around the arts). He was wiry, suntanner, vigorous, open, all howdies and glad talk and even yelling hello to bums on the street and when asked a question answered right off the bat from the top or bottom of his mind I don't know which and always in a sprightly sparkling way.

(Jack Kerouac: The Dharma Bums, pp. 9-10)

But these friends are obviously not regular friends. These are among the best known poets of the 20th century in the USA, and Kerouac describes one of the most momentous poetry readings in recent times, one that made it to the History books:

Anyway I followed the whole gang of howling poets to the reading at Gallery Six that night, which was, among other important things, the night of the birth of the San Francisco Poetry Renaissance. Everyone was there. It was a mad night. And I was the one who got things jumping by going around collecting dimes and quarters from the rather stiff audience standing in the gallery and coming back with three huge gallon jugs of California Burgundy and getting them all piffed so that by eleven o'clock when Alvah Goldbook was reading his, wailing his poem "Wail" [he is referring to Allen Gingsber's famous Howl] drunk with arms outspread everybody was yelling "Go! Go! Go!" (like a jam session) and old Rheinhold Cacoethes [fictional name for Kenneth Rexroth] the father of the Frisco poetry scene was wiping his tears in gladness. Japhy himself read his fine poems about Coyote the God of the North American Indians, Kwakiutl and what-all. "Fuck you! sang Coyote, and ran away!" read Japhy to the distinguished audience, making them all howl with joy, it was so pure, fuck being a dirty word that comes out clean. And he had his tender lyrical lines, like the ones about bears eating berries, showing his love of animals, and great mystery lines about oxen on the Mongolian road showing his knowledge of Oriental literature even on to Hsuan Tsung the great Chinese monk who walked from China to Tibet, Lanchow to Kashgar and Mongolia carrying a stick of incense in his hand. Then Japhy showed his sudden bar-room humor with lines about Coyote bringing goodies. And his anarchistic ideas about how Americans don't know how to live, with lines about commuters being trapped in living rooms that come from poor trees felled by chainsaws (showing here, also, his background as a logger up north). His voice was deep and resonant and somewhat brave, like the voice of oldtime American heroes and orators. Something earnest and strong and humanly hopeful I liked about him, while the other poets were either too dainty in their aestheticism, or too hysterically cynical to hope for anything, or too abstract and indoorsy, or too political, or like Coughlin [Philip Whalen] too incomprehensible to understand (big Coughlin saying things about "unclarified processes" though where Coughlin did say that revelation was a persona thing I noticed the strong Buddhist and idealistic feeling of Japhy, which he'd shared with goodhearted Coughlin in their buddy days at college, as I had shared mine with Alvah in the Eastern scene and with others less apocalyptical and straighter but in no sense more sympathetic and tearful).

Meanwhile scores of people stood around in the darkened gallery straining to hear every word of the amazing poetry reading as I wandered from group to group, facing them and facing away from the stage, urging them to glug a slug from the jug, or wandered back and sat on the right side of the stage giving out little wows and yesses of approval and even whole sentences of comment with nobody's disapproval invitation but in general gaiety nobody's disapproval either. It was a great night. Delicate Francis DaPavia [Philip Lamantia] read, from delicate onionskin yellow pages, or pink, which he kept flipping carefully with long white fingers, the poems of his dead chum Altman who'd eaten too much peyote in Chihuahua (or died of polio, one) but read none of his own poems —a charming elegy in itself to the memory of the dead young poet, enough to draw tears from the Cervantes of Chapter Seven, and read them in a delicate Englishly voice that had me crying with inside laughter though later I got to know Francis and liked him.

Among the people standing in the audience was Rosie Buchanan, a girl with a short haircut, red-haired, bony, handsome, a real gone chick and friend of everybody of any consequence on the Beach, who'd been a painter's model and a writer herself and was bubbling over with excitement at that time because she was in love with my old buddy Cody. "Great, hey Rosie?" I yelled, and she took a big slug from my jug and shined eyes at me. Cody just stood behind her with both arms around her waist. Between poets, Rheingold Cacoethes, in his bow tie and shabby old coat, would get up and make a little funny speech in his snide funny voice and introduce the next reader; but as I say come eleven-thirty when all the poems were read and everybody was milling around wondering what had happened and what would come next in American poetry, he was wiping his eyes with his handkerchief. And we all got together with him, the poets, and drove in several cars to Chinatown for a big fabulous dinner off the Chinese menu, with chopsticks, yelling conversation in the middle of the night in one of those free-swinging great Chinese restaurants of San Francisco. This happened to be Japhy's favorite Chinese restaurant, Nam Yuen, and he showed me how to order and how to eat with chopsticks and told anecdotes about the Zen Lunatics of the Orient and had me going so glad (and we had a bottle of wine on the table) that finally I went over to an old cook in the doorway of the kitchen and asked him "Why did Bodhidharma come from the West?" (Bodhidharma was the Indian who brought Buddhism eastward to China.)

"I don't care," said the old cook, with lidded eyes, and I told Japhy and he said, "Perfect answer, absolutely perfect. Now you know what I mean by Zen."

I had a lot more to learn, too. Especially about how to handle girls —Japhy's incomparable Zen Lunatic way, which I got a chance to see firsthand the following week.

(Jack Kerouac: The Dharma Bums, pp. 13-16)

A good description of that historical poetry reading that gave birth to the renowned San Francisco Poetry Renaissance in 1955... and also, if I may say so, a very simplistic and superficial approach to Buddhism and philosophy in general, something that is quite characteristic of Kerouac in general. Perhaps people like Ginsberg or Snyder had the intellectual stature to know what they were talking about, but Kerouac definitely did not, although he did like to fiddle with all these cool ideas and play with the big boys. There is no doubt about that.

To be honest, the book is full of examples where Kerouac discusses Buddhism as if he even has a clue. Mind you, one truly does not need to know much about Buddhism to realize that he is definitely full of it, a mere poser. Among other things, he writes "profound" musings such as:

"Let there be blowing-out and bliss forevermore," I prayed in the woods at night. I kept making newer and better prayer. And more poems, like when the snow came, "Not oft, the holy snow, so soft, the holy bow," and at one point I wrote "The Four Inevitabilities: 1. Musty Books. 2. Uninteresting Nature. 3. Dull Existence. 4. Blank Nirvana, buy that boy." Or I wrote, on dull afternoons when neither Buddhism nor poetry nor wine nor solitude nor basketball would avail my lazy but earnest flesh, "Nothin to do, Oh poo! Practically blue."

(Jack Kerouac: The Dharma Bums, p. 136)

Very deep, obviously.

Anyway, I do not want to give the wrong impression. As I said above, this is perhaps one of Kerouac's books that I enjoyed the most (and I've read a few). If you are a wandering spirit, a nomad who moves from place to place and never feels as if you can ever settle down in a final home, I think you'll enjoy this book. Honest. One only has to understand that Kerouac (and perhaps the rest of the beatnik literature too) is an acquired taste.

Entertainment Factor: 6/10
Artistic Factor: 6/10