Friday, March 13, 2009

On "The Dharma Bums" by Jack Kerouac *****

I first read Dharma Bums when I was about twenty. It was the first Jack Kerouac book I ever read. Well, read halfway through. I was working at a bookstore at the time, and we sold our single copy when I was in the middle of it. The book was out of stock for the next year or so. So I ended up completing On the Road before completing Dharma Bums. (I guess Kerouac didn't have as big a following then as he does now, because a number of his books were out of print at the time. Young guy that I was, I hadn't known about him until hearing his name in a 10,000 Maniacs song and then, months later, coming across a book by an author of the same name in the bookstore where I was working. I thought him a travel writer before I actually picked him up.)

I remember really liking Dharma Bums at first but being somewhat underwhelmed after coming back to it a year or so later, like I had high expectations by then that it couldn't possibly meet. Or maybe it's just not as good in the second half, because that was my feeling this time as well. After Ray Smith leaves Japhy Ryder to go back east the first time, the story loses momentum. The first eighty pages or so have that same kind of enthusiasm that On the Road does, where Kerouac basically says, I'm going to write about five times I met my friend and what we did. There's not a heavy plot, but his enthusiasm for all that's being done carries readers through. Same thing here in Dharma Bums for the first half--Ray is just as excited about Japhy as the narrator of On the Road was about Dean Moriarty.

What happens in the second half? Maybe what happens is that the philosophy--the dharma, all the Buddhist trappings--become more and more pronounced and finally overwhelm. And yet, even as I found myself not as excited about the second half, I did enjoy these ideas being tossed around, this enthusiasm for a way of life, for giving up on all the worldly goods and getting back to simple things. All the parties that Kerouac describes, hanging out talking about philosophy, reminded me of myself at that age and how much fun I had doing similar sorts of things (though the parties I was at were never as wild). I used to dream of picking up odd jobs any old place and living "on the road" too. Now, such a thing sounds simply stressful. Of course, even though it had appeal when I was younger, I always figured it too dangerous and too stressful to really do. But now, it seems that way even more so. Still, in the midst of all our nation's current financial troubles, it's good to remember that we can still hike into the forest, still drink a little water, still get back to basics--that those stocks really don't mean anything (except that it will be a lot harder to pay for food and rent once retired if they stay low).


Adam Zadeh said...

Much like you I found this little book after reading the much more famous "On the Road".

I however was disappointed in "On the Road" because after all was said and down what did we learn? How did he change? I remember feeling very disappointed by the end of it, like you do after a party that was not as great as you hoped it would be.

Strangly enough I didn't feel that at the end of "Dharma". Kerouac grew and changed and reentered the world with a new found purpose after this book. This book was also written before (but published after) "On the Road" and a careful reader can pick out where he is experiementing with spontanous prose and using the more traditional writing style. You can feel his enthusiasm for his work throughout the book.

For that reason this is my favorite of Kerouac's work. A young author coming into his own and a young man finally finding his way in the world.

Sadly, his fame and addictive personality would eventually drive him insane and even harder into the bottle. The love he shows in this book would be lacking in the rest of his work in my humble opinion.

Short Story Reader said...

It's been a while since I read "On the Road" (though I did reread it about a decade after my first reading of it), but you're probably correct about the main character's lack of change or growth. It's one of the things, however, that I tend not to view as quite so essential to a good piece of writing as some other people do. I'm not certain people grow and change throughout their lives--it seems we often in a way remain sadly the same. Of course, pulling off a story in which a character remains flat is difficult to make interesting.

What strikes me so much about Kerouac's best writing is his boundless enthusiasm, which seems more intense in "On the Road" and in the first half of "Dharma Bums." It doesn't exist as much in some of his other work, and for that reason I tend not to find it of as much interest. Still, "Dharma Bums" does rate as one of my favorites of his, along with "Visions of Gerard" and "Subterraneans" (though I wonder if the latter would prove a bit disappointing like DB did to me now that I'm older). "Lonesome Traveler" is pretty good too.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts on the book and for discussing some of the background on "Dharma Bums."