Wednesday, December 28, 2016


            Toni Morrison first landed on my radar when Ta-Nehisi Coates included a quote by her on the cover of Between the World and Me. As an author, Morrison does not shy from slapping you in the face with racial commentary. Her most notable novel, Beloved*, earned her the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature, and she continues to be a booming voice in discussions regarding the disenfranchisement of black America. 

            Beloved tackles the topic of slavery, couched in creative storytelling. The plot is based on a historically famous moment of infanticide. The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 stated that slaves who escaped to free states could be seized by their previous masters and returned to captivity. When Kentucky plantation owners apprehended former slave Margaret Garner in Ohio in 1856, Margaret chose to murder her own daughter rather than give her back over to slavery.

            Morrison, inspired by the ferocity of Margaret’s love for her child as well as the moral contentiousness of her actions, adapts the event into a fictional story. In order to effectively hone in on the psychological trauma of slavery, Morrison considers the killing from multiple perspectives, including the mother, the community, the other siblings, and the dead daughter herself in the form of a ghost. The result is a chilling account of a brutal action born of an even more brutal and murderous institution.

            I appreciate Morrison’s thoughtful take on a terrible history that I can’t fully comprehend. Unfortunately, I’m not a fan of her writing style, and I had quite a bit of trouble navigating a sense of place within the novel. She jumps around between past, present, future, death, life, imagination, and spoken word. Additionally, she jumps around between the minds of each main character. I spent most of the time trying to orient myself to the speaker/context, and too little time grasping the intended message.

            Morrison is a gifted poet, and her writing contains a rawness fitting of a population that was forced to remain vulnerable even in their legal “freedom”. When I wasn’t distracted by the jerking back and forth between surrealism, reality, and stream of consciousness, I considered her very talented. After the negatives balance the positives, Beloved levels out at 3 out of 5 camel humps.

*Morrison, Toni. BelovedNew York: Random House, 1987. Print.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

The Dharma Bums

I didn’t enjoy On the Road, because Kerouac is a misogynistic asshole, and I have difficulty separating his prose from his subject. He published The Dharma Bums* a year later, in 1958, and the improvement is staggering for a number of reasons.

In typical Kerouac fashion, The Dharma Bums is a semi-fictional story, and the main character (Ray Smith) is based on himself. Through Smith, we see Kerouac explore what Zen Buddhism means for him. Compared to On the Road, He comes to similar conclusions about the meaning of life and how he should respond to that truth, but the Buddhist lens leads to an important caveat: you can do whatever you want, but you should always be kind. 

His kindness and generosity lend to an optimistic tone throughout. Even the way he describes food is upbeat (basic meals are considered the most delicious of all time). His friend group is encouraging and communally oriented, which helps Kerouac on his journey to discover how to live the best life. Another main character in the book—Japhy Ryder, based on poet Gary Snyder—epitomizes the charitable Buddha. Smith (Kerouac) looks up to Ryder (Snyder), and the majority of The Dharma Bums details Smith’s outdoor hikes and mountain climbing, all inspired by Ryder.

Why all the outdoorsiness? According to Kerouac, dharma bums are “rucksack wanderers…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 want anyway” (Kerouac, 83). Kerouac is notoriously adventurous. He lives wildly and spontaneously, hitchhiking all across America dozens of times. A key component of his Buddhism is simplicity---and what’s simpler than having virtually no possessions and living off of the land? He is truly in the land of the free. He has a zest for life unquenchable by conventional standards, and he is happier in a sleeping bag at the base of a mountain than in a bed.

This book makes me happy to be alive, and I finally understand why people love Kerouac. He has a childlike receptivity to the world, constantly open to new experiences. He makes being poor look glamorous because he is rich in spirit. He writes in a goofy, strangely descriptive, stream-of-consciousness style that more accurately expresses his joy than if he had written cautiously. He just wants to “ornament this world with [his] sincerity” (Kerouac, 14).

          Overall, I think that the writing skill and content of The Dharma Bums is an upgrade from the novel that put Kerouac on the map. In On the Road, women are often caught in the crosshairs of his escapades. In Dharma Bums, there are traces of misogyny, but mostly, we witness Kerouac’s moral trajectory advance in a positive direction. I never had a problem with his rowdiness—and that’s definitely still present, as when he and his friends perform Buddhist Yab-Yum rituals, which are actually orgies with a spiritual twist. But The Dharma Bums reveals a Kerouac who is equally ravenous, but less ignorant of the mess his rampages leave behind. As such, I give Dharma Bums 5 out of 5 camel humps.

*Kerouac, Jack. The Dharma Bums. New York: the Penguin Group, 1959. Print.