A novel by Jack Kerouac
It was a follow-up to On the Road, and it has some of the autobiographical, symbolic, lyrical, and unruly qualities of that book, but in The Dharma Bums, the spiritual quest is informed by Kerouak's study of Buddhism.
Like On the Road, The Dharma Bums is a buddy story told by a first person narrator. This Kerouacian character is called "Ray Smith". The buddy this time is "Japhy Ryder", who was patterned after Gary Snyder, who later became a Pulitzer Prize winning poet and high profile California Zenbo.
Dharma Bums is Kerouac's sweetest book, full of the exhilaration of Smith's faltering quest for enlightenment, and the heady environment of late-fifties Beat San Francisco. Kerouak was at the height of his powers during this time, writing on a rented typewriter fed with continuous roll teletype paper. The exquisite rush of his language sweeps through the events in the story, but it carries the reader into "Smith"'s soul, as well.
There is a bittersweet quality to it that is amplified by the knowledge of what happened to Kerouac, and to the world, after it was written, but but it is perhaps the most hopeful thing that Kerouac ever wrote. I read it every few years, just to remind myself how much life can be squeezed out of mere existence.
My copy is in a box somewhere right now, or I would give you a sample of the heights to which Kerouac took English (his second language) in this book. For now, be satisfied with a clip from the web:
We pushed the bike down past the various college hangouts and cafeterias and looked into Robbie's to see if we knew anybody. Alvah was in there, working his part-time job as busboy. Japhy and I were kind of outlandish-looking on the campus in our old clothes in fact Japhy was considered an eccentric around the campus, which is the usual thing for campuses and college people to think whenever a real man appears on the scene -- college being nothing but grooming schools for the middle-class non-identity which usually finds its perfect expression on the outskirts of the campus in rows of well-to-do houses with lawns and television sets in each living room with everybody looking at the same thing at the same time while the Japhies of the world go prowling in the wilderness to hear the voice crying in the dark mysterious secret of the origin of faceless wonderless crapulous civilization. 'All these people,' said Japhy, 'they all got white-tiled toilets and take big dirty craps like bears in the mountains, but it's all washed away to convenient supervised sewers and nobody thinks of crap any more or realizes their origin is shit and civet and scum of the sea. They spend all day washing their hands with creamy soaps they secretly wanta eat in the bathroom.'
This excerpt seems to have been chosen to illustrate how deeply the Beat ethos has influenced American culture, or at least "counterculture
". That's true, of course, but The Dharma Bums
should be read for personal
, not societal