Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Book Review: The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac

In 1957, the NY Times declared Jack Kerouac (1922-1968) the voice of his generation after the publication of On the RoadThe Dharma Bums came out the following year and failed to win the literary world over.  While similar in spirit to On the Road, The Dharma Bums is more spiritual.  By the late 1950s, Kerouac, already a legendary figure among the beats, was enamored with Buddhism.  For Kerouac, Eastern religion had the potential to inspire younger people searching for an identity in the uneasy splendor that was post war America.  Now, over fifty years after its publication, it is credited with sparking the New Age movement.

The story centers around two characters and the people they meet.  The narrator is Ray, an aspiring poet, and Japhy, a larger than life poet/Buddhist/zen master.  Japhy is based on Gary Snyder (1930-  ), a poet who lived in a Buddhist monastery and later associate of the beats.  Like Dean Moriarty in On the Road, there is an otherworldly, messianic quality to the character.  Ray is in awe of Japhy and aspires to emulate him.  For a book about Buddhism, however, we learn very little about the religion itself.  Kerouac throws out anecdotes and quotes from famous gurus, but it all feels like a joke the reader isn't in on. 

The "story" revolves around trying to find some form of meaning in the consumerist, suburbanite society that America had become.  Although both characters have a hedonistic streak, Ray's drinking eventually alienates Japhy.  This sadly mirrored the path Kerouac followed after he achieved fame.  This gives the book a melancholy vibe at the end.  But the romanticism in the story, in particular the joy and grandeur of climbing a mountain (the novel's best section) is a joy to read.  Like any Kerouac work it is an experience and although you aren't quite sure what happened - you know something happened.

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