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 off of 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 lends 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.

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