Review: The Dharma Bums

Book: The Dharma Bums

Author: Jack Kerouac

My Rating: 5/5 Stars

Recommended for: Anyone who is interested in existential thought, nature lovers and fans of travel heavy American literature.

Kerouac came to me during a very interesting time in my life. As a result, I think I have an opportunity to view his works through a unique lens. Having recently quit a potentially lucrative career at a large engineering company in search for something “more”, I find much of Kerouac’s writing speaks to that part of me that is out there searching.

Dharma Bums, while certainty a flawed work, captures the essence of Kerouac, portrayed by Ray Smith, and his never-ending struggle for existential definition. From the sides of Matterhorn to his sanctuary in the forest behind his family’s home – I found his search for meaning painfully relevant to my own existential struggles.

“You and your Buddha, who don’t you stick to the religion you were born with?”

At its core, much of Dharma Bums revolves around Kerouac’s rejection of traditional Western values in search of meaning and happiness. The reader is given a glimpse into his friendship with Gary Snyder, portrayed by the loveable and eccentric Japhy Ryder, and how Snyder introduced Kerouac to the basic tenants of Zen Buddhism. Many Buddhist words are thrown around throughout the novel, sometimes seeming to be adapted to situations where they don’t quite fit. The “dharma” portion of this novel felt skeletal and hollow to me and as such, I would not recommend anyone read this book in an attempt to further understand Zen Buddhism. That being said, I do think Kerouac’s interpretation of Buddhism was a useful tool for him to delve further into the important questions he was, and always has been trying to answer. It helped set the stage for the parts of the book that I loved.

“But I’d watch them rambling around the fields all day looking for something to do, so their wives would think they were real busy hardworking men, and they weren’t fooling me either. I knew secretly they wanted to go sleep in the woods, or just sit and do nothing in the woods, like I wasn’t too ashamed to do.”

Where the “dharma” side of this novel falls short, the “bum” portion thrives. Kerouac is at his best when describing emotions evoked by his surroundings. I fell in love with his descriptions of his time on Matterhorn and his secluded stay at the fire tower on Desolation Peak. It was particularly fitting to have these two sections open and close a novel otherwise devoid of narrative or progress. Much of the work bounces between parties with friends where the wine flows as freely as the Buddhist rhetoric, and the protagonist’s thoughts as he sits in solitude or hitchhikes across the country. Above all, this novel allowed me to feel at peace with my own internal struggles. It helped me feel like I wasn’t alone. I found a companion in Ray Smith who understands my turmoil and even if the work didn’t provide any new revelations into my own search for meaning, it did bring along a feeling I would akin to nostalgia. Much of Smith’s time with Japhy reminded me of my own friendships and the times I have spent staring at the stars with a good pal looking for something in the blackness. I always put this book down feeling at peace with the world around me.

“You’re drinking too much all the time, I don’t see how you’re ever going to gain enlightenment and manage to stay out in the mountains…”

Kerouac was an alcoholic, something I picked up while reading On the Road and later confirmed when I learned he died at age 47 from an alcohol related illness. There was a palpable contrast with how each of these works addressed alcohol abuse. In On the Road, Kerouac’s character is often portrayed drinking with the other characters, sometimes spending their last dollars on wine and beer. Where On the Road focusses on the early Beat Movement and its key figures, many of whom had substance abuse problems, Dharma Bums takes a much more pragmatic approach to Kerouac’s alcohol problems. Many of the characters chide Ray for his constant drinking – the above excerpt is from a short chapter where Japhy confronts Ray about his alcohol abuse. Although this is a theme throughout the novel, Smith is always dismissing his friend’s remarks and continues to down jugs of port at every available opportunity. As someone who grew up with an alcoholic father and having myself struggled at times with substance abuse, this part of the narrative struck close to home. Knowing that Kerouac does eventually succumb to his addiction at such a young age left me feeling helpless and frustrated. There is certainly something to learn here.

“By itself it’s a no-thing; it’s really mental, it’s seen only of your mind. In other words it’s empty and awake.”

“Now there’s the karma of these three men here: Japhy Ryder gets to his triumphant mountaintop and makes it, I almost make it and have to give up and huddle in a bloody cave, but the smartest of them all is that poet’s poet lyin down there with his knees crossed to the sky chewing on a flower…”

The most important thing that this novel represents to me is that feeling that one gets when they discover something new about themselves; about the world. Kerouac is always searching for meaning and manages to find components to truth and happiness in the mundane and simple. He has a way of evoking that feeling one gets when they discover that something. It’s as if the world is a buffet set out before you and most of the food you can see is mediocre and bland, but every now and then you find that delectable morsel that you just want to savor until it has completely faded from your memory. Then you keep digging through the bland until you again come across another piece worth savoring. As I close this novel and add it to my shelf I hope I will come back to it at a different point in my life and still find some of those delectable morsels. They might taste different next time and I might find them in new places, but that is what was striking to my about Dharma Bums and why I would recommend it to anyone still out there searching.

I want to close this out with a thought I often ponder, and it is one that a friend and I came to during a conversation in the woods, much like those moments between Ray and Japhy.

“Perhaps the answer to this great question is the question itself.”

Never stop asking questions and never stop searching. Even if you don’t find what you are looking for, you will be better off for it.

“The woods do that to you, they always look familiar, long lost, like the face of a long-dead relative, like an old dream, like a piece of forgotten song drifting across the water, most of all like golden eternities of past childhood or past manhood and all the living and the dying and the heartbreak that went on a million years ago and the clouds as they pass overhead seem to testify to this feeling.”

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