Thursday, November 06, 2008

Review of The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac

Jack Kerouac came into into my literary purview over ten years ago, when I combined my meager estate with my wife's. I'm not sure which of her wannabe bohemian boyfriends had originally inspired the purchase, but I can't really begrudge the guy for ultimately adding to the library. On page twenty-five or so, I found the bookmark that I placed in this copy of The Dharma Bums in 1997, where I stopped reading it the first time. It seems like the sort of novel that wouldn't begrudge me for resuming it after so long an absence, and which would be happy to be accepted from some unknown former love interest. It's all good.

The Dharma Bums is more atmospheric and philosophical than it tensely plotted--it doesn't demand a breathless page-whipping race to the finale. It's a buddy story, and a travel novel, which does ramble from somewhere to somwhere else, but not with a particular urgency. Kerouac writes himself in as Ray Smith, and the story details his friendship and experiences with Japhy Ryder, together exploring Buddhist philosophy as well as the natural landscape of California and the Pacific northwest. Ryder is based on a real writer of Kerouac's acquaintance (who is still writing in fact), as, evidently, are all the other characters in the novel as well, not that it would have helped me to keep score. I liked most of the odd bastards, and if they weren't a particularly responsible bunch, they were benevolent, and they seemed like great fun to be around. Stuff happens, and the friendship evolves over time, but any given ten pages of this book give a similar satisfaction as any other ten, and it's a natural to limit the reading to an easy evening, pleasant to pick up and just as easy to put down. Which is probably what happened eleven years ago.

Self-discovery on the road is a time-worn storytelling approach, and in that respect, I hold Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas as a worthy companion read. I like even better to put these novels in broader arc, and the antecedant that leaps most immediately to mind is Jerome K. Jerome shipping friends around at the turn of the last century in different conveyances. (Were I more ambitious about these of reviews, I'd take on another of Mr. Jerome's for this series, but I happily managed to get through Three Men in a Boat in the same year I stalled on the Dharma Bums--there's only so much of that sort of thing I'm willing to take at a time.) Each has the same thinly fictionalized autobiography, presented with similar mixtures of escape, male bonding, comedy, and philosophical interjections. The escape is for the characters, and the hideout isn't so much the wilderness as it is civilization's fringe, not a matter of pitting brawn against the savage forces of nature, but rather a retreat to a place safe enough and independent enough to explore the world from the writer's own perspective. Over the arc of these novels, this required increasingly drastic measures for the getting away. Late Victoriana could be ditched in a comfortable outing down the Thames. Kerouac needed the deep woods and old weird America to hide himself in, and only thirteen years later, it took Hunter S. Thompson copious amounts of drugs. I also like imagining this progression for the delivered philosophies, which are poked in as wistful or wondering asides, and over the intertextual century, there is a growing refutation of the status quo: from ambivalent glimpses of the human condition, to an escape from Western philosophy, to, in Thompson's case, a horrified rebuke of it. Read the three of them together, perhaps, as commentary on how invasive society has become (and how quickly).

In The Dharma Bums, Kerouac's embrace of Zen Buddhism is a sort that reaffirms his own lifestyle, absent any spiritual effort that doesn't satisfy him. Not that it didn't take some personal effort, but it did often feel self-serving, and maybe even a little self-aggrandizing. I could see the author as that mild, friendly, half-baked, humbler-than-thou sort you sometimes find at parties. It's like a Bohemian slacker superstar version of, say, Deion Sanders glorifying Jesus with his touchdown-scoring awesomeness. Admittedly, I like Jack's sense of splendor a lot better, and his voice is nice enough too, moving along at an elemental groove, and able to summon as much child-like enthusiasm for immense natural wonders as for simple human pleasures. Although I distrusted the spirituality, and found the book a little skimpy on cerebral jollies, Kerouac is out to find and celebrate the things of the world that are still pure and good, and in his travels he always gets there, and it's nice to be along on the trek. The solitude and the friendship, the spirituality and the beauty, they all get through just fine.


Ben There said...

Hi Keifus -

Superb writing. Gives me something to aspire to. I wondered over here somehow through the Fray. (I post as WasLTT there.) I read some Keourac several months ago and it was enjoyable enough but these guys seemed like they were trying a little too hard to be cool. Just my impression. Maybe I'm projecting, who knows.

twiffer said...

i've not read dharma bums in years: read it originally for one of my english lit courses. hazy, favorable recall but never felt like something i needed to pick up again. i'm not sure if that's a negative or not though. depends on the book.

Keifus said...

Kerouac is (was) good at communicating the simple joys of life, which is a valuable thing, and I appreciated that pretty well here. But it's not something that left me screaming for more either.

Ben: thanks a lot for stopping by. I got the feeling that Jack was trying to impress the reader too. Can you really believe the guy who says he keeps figuring out the secret of life?

twif: this one still had a uconn co-op sticker on it, where she bought it. Maybe I guessed wrong about the inspiration.


twiffer said...

hehe. i've got a lot of paperbacks with that good old "USED" sticker on the spine.

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