Book Review—The Dharma Bums

The Dharma Bums, by Jack Kerouac (1922-1969), published 1958

The Dharma Bums was published a year after Kerouac’s more famous novel, On the Road. I read them both in the 1960’s and remember his free-flowing writing style and his general enthusiasm but with On the Road I couldn’t understand what all the fuss was about. It may have been a seminal work but being original doesn’t necessarily mean it is engaging. Lacking confidence, I assumed it was my fault. I read it again in the mid 1980’s and, with confidence, understood less “what all the fuss was about.” I recalled that I had liked The Dharma Bums better—way back then—but I couldn’t remember why. So after forty some years, I revisited it.

The Dharma Bums is less about the Beat generation (as in On the Road) and more about a couple young men, Ray and Japhy, in search of Truth through Zen Buddhism. This was based on the real-life Kerouac and pal poet Gary Snyder, who apparently had a large influence on Kerouac’s Buddhist journey. There is a lot more praying, meditation, and celibacy going on here than wild living, although Ray did like his port wine. I found Kerouac’s zest for life innocent and life affirming, his striving for understanding of the world similar to other men’s striving. He was thirty-six at the time but he sounded younger and wiser.

The essence of the book is told in one paragraph, well into the book: “[S]ee the whole thing is a world of rucksack wanderers, Dharma Bums refusing to subscribe to the general demand that they consume production and therefore have to work for the privilege of consuming all that crap they didn’t really want anyway such as refrigerators, TV sets, cars, at least new fancy cars, certain hair oils and deodorants and general junk you finally always see a week later in the garbage anyway, all of them imprisoned in a system of work, produce, consume, work, produce, consume, I see a vision of a great rucksack revolution thousands or even millions of young Americans wandering around with rucksacks, going up to mountains to pray, making children laugh and old men glad, making young girls happy and old girls happier, all of ‘em Zen Lunatics who go about writing poems that happen to appear in their heads for no reason and also being kind and also by strange unexpected acts keep giving visions of eternal freedom to everybody and to all living creatures….” One might accuse Kerouac of being a prophet back in 1958; or lacking a divine source, at least a soothsayer, predicting the Hippy movement and “flower children.”

I enjoyed the great hike into the Sierras, the descriptions of Marin County, the name dropping of locations—North Beach, Oakland and Berkeley—the trips for skid row coffee, shopping at Goodwill and the Salvation Army, hopping trains, hitchhiking home to North Carolina for Christmas, living lean in comfortable shacks, and the summer of self-discovery on fire watch at Desolation Peak in Washington. I particularly liked reading the bit about the cheap bus ride from smoggy LA to Riverside, with its fresh clean air! “I was exulted to see a beautiful dry river bottom with white sand and just a trickle river in the middle as we rolled over the bridge into Riverside.” He camped among the thickets, “a kind of bamboo,” on the river bottom in a nice open spot “except for the roar of trucks on the river bridge.” In the 1960’s, this had no meaning to me. But I now know the bridge because I lived in Riverside, CA for twenty-five years. It’s on Mission Inn Blvd. and it’s the same place where the homeless camp today.

Kerouac floats between sadness, “Are we fallen angels who didn’t want to believe that nothing is nothing and so were born to lose our loved ones and dear friends one by one and finally our own life, to see it proved?”—to moments of humorous joy—“But let the mind beware, that though the flesh be bugged, the circumstances of existence are pretty glorious.”

I now know why I liked this book all those years ago. I read it at a time when being a hobo was an option, when riding a freight train was a considered choice, when the song lyric “I’ve got plenty of nothin and nothin’s plenty for me,” from Porgy and Bess, held an attraction. I had a romanticized notion that happiness was to be found in a vow of poverty and adventurous exploration, mixing my Jack London, Hemmingway and Robert Rurak with the Beat writers. My “Desolation Peak” experience was in 1963, a summer at 9000 feet, in Fish Lake Utah, spending my nights in my sleeping bag on a cot in a rustic old lodge, my days doing the work of common men, my free time fishing, exploring, messing with the Mormon girls, and killing jackrabbits. At the end of the summer, I hitchhiked to LA with a change of underwear plus four cans of Coors beer rolled up in my sleeping bag then hitched all the back to Ohio arriving two days before the beginning of my senior year in college. It was the most difficult semester of my prosaic college life. I didn’t want to be there. I wanted to climb mountains, sail the oceans, see the world, witness nature at its wildest, experience the freedom of unlimited options. A sense of responsibility and a cute cheerleader helped me change my mind—the cheerleader more than the sense of responsibility. (I had also concluded that I liked girls who shaved their legs and smelled good. One might suggest that this was a sign of intelligence. I know it had nothing to do with intelligence).

Accusing Kerouac of naivety would be a valid criticism of his thinking. The world wasn’t (and isn’t) ready to “wake up” as he suggests, but I admire his optimism: “You and I ain’t out to bust anybody’s skull, or cut someone’s throat in an economic way, we’ve dedicated ourselves to prayer for all sentient beings and when we’re strong enough we’ll really be able to do it, too, like the old saints. Who knows, the world might wake up and burst out into a beautiful flower of Dharma everywhere.” I recently read a definition of the pursuit of happiness from Charles Colson. (What? You’ve got to be kidding! Chuck Colson and Jack Kerouac in the same paragraph?) Colson said it was “the freedom to make our best efforts toward a virtuous life.” Kerouac may have been misguided, self-destructive and a sleazeball of the highest order—I don’t really know—but in this book, he sounded like an eager man in the pursuit of happiness. His final plea at the end of the book is poignant: “God, I love you…Take care of us all, one way or the other.”

Review originally written in 2003.

Addendum: When this review originally appeared on my old blog, my guitar teacher, Brian Lewis, offered this reflective comment:

“Having spent 15 of my 25 years as a professional musician ‘on the road,’ my response to Kerouac now is quite different than when I first read him in high school. I was originally intoxicated with idealism; the romantic NOTION that a carefree lifestyle, one of constant motion and little accountability, was a doorway not only to happiness, but also to enlightenment and ultimately, God. What I found was a reality of numbing sameness (traveling, hotels, band houses, buses, vans, even limo’s sometimes, tempered by fantastic high’s (the gigs, the music itself, the performance and the offering of my (our) talents to whom ever would listen, even if it sometimes was only God).

The thrill and meaning was found only in the work, only in the fruits of the discipline. All the other hobo-ing felt like a complete (but necessary) waste of time. I have come away realizing most people (maybe not Kerouac, but certainly most who have been ‘inspired’ by him) are in love with the IDEA of the lifestyle, not the lifestyle itself. It is very romantic to envision yourself hitching a train and riding with the sun on your shoulders and wind in your hair, not a care. The reality is somewhat different, wind stinging your skin and baking it into a leathery mess, constantly worried about your own personal safety. Hungry, angry, lonely, tired.

Most people tell me how neat it must have been to have had that decade-and-a-half of touring, on the road and living town-to-town, gig-to-gig, playing music. What they didn’t see was the 14 hours a day staring out the tour bus window, driving from said town-to-next-faceless-town. By my math, I spent roughly 31 hours traveling for every hour spent onstage actually performing. Over 15 years, that means 12 of those years were JUST traveling, and only 3 of them were actually spent performing.

I still like to read Kerouac, but with a very different eye than before.”

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