Saturday, May 16, 2009

Jack Kerouac's "The Dharma Bums": Book Review

Just before "On the Road" brought him the success he craved, Kerouac wrote this account of the "Zen Lunatics" and Gary Snyder's prediction of a "rucksack revolution." This is my first Beat book; in middle age I admit lingering distrust of their sometimes condescending attitude towards the rest of us.

That being said, this novelization may make the young feel vigorous and the mature wistful. Hearing "Japhy Ryder" gush about bulgar and yabyum, green tea and trail mix, baked bread and paisley shawls, Goodwill and hi-fi jazz before the massive commodification of counterculture filters the innocence of these early free spirits from Eisenhower's decade into a muted sepia. It's instructive, as Ann Douglas notes in her introduction, that "Ray" as Kerouac strives towards a greater sympathy than Snyder-as-Japhy expresses with the "straights" who must, after all, fund the hikes and the naps of the Beats. There's a sense of slumming, by these two students wanting to imitate a "bhikku," a dharma bum. Japhy in real life's Reed-Indiana-Berkeley, Ray's author a scholarship-dropout from Columbia, allied with other privileged folks from the Ivy League and NYC bohemia. I don't know why, but there's an aura of play-acting and noblesse-oblige irritating me about their admirable but somehow smug quest. Blame it on Berkeley?

Ray appears, to his eternal credit, aware at least of the contradiction between a Zen lunatic lording his insight over the unenlightened crew-cut and bee-hived masses and his own self struggling, who down on his luck has to go back to North Carolina to live off his kinfolk. Some of the best moments in this book come when Ray tells of his tramps by train and hitchhiking.

Apropos, this book was written in ten days and nights at his mother's place in Florida. As his fictional self, Ray ponders the contradiction between the San Francisco party scene of dissolute intellectuals and his family, unable to comprehend Ray's notions and his lazy habits. "And I thought of Japhy as I stood there in the cold yard looking at [his mother as she does the dishes]: 'Why is he so mad about white tiled sinks and "kitchen machinery" he calls it? People have good hearts whether or not they live like Dharma Bums. Compassion is the heart of Buddhism." (100)

Yet, the Beats' stance against conformity did inspire generations towards more righteous behavior, along with a lot of excess on that road to wisdom. It's noteworthy that the narrator opens by admitting that while he was once more devout before he met Ryder, now he's "a little tired and cynical." (2) Ray seems already to have studied the dharma largely on his own and passed through the initial, somewhat superior stage, and now feels it's a lot of "lip service." Still, meeting Japhy, Ray perks up.

The centerpiece of the narrative, the climb of the Matterhorn, makes one compare that Sierra peak to the manufactured scale mold towering in smaller form above the then-new Disneyland further south in California. The impression of a still largely rural state, even around the Bay Area, leaves in this fiftieth anniversary edition (graced with a fine letter from Henry Miller to the publisher acclaiming said book, but no more added than clothbound and no more or less permanent pulp pages otherwise to the Penguin Deluxe Classics re-issue, and lacking "Jason"'s quirky artwork), a sense of loss for those who live in the state now. The Beats and then hippies, no less than Cold War defense industries, transformed California into a busier, tawdrier, and uglier place, with dreamers and schemers lured by the rhapsodies in Kerouac and Snyder and their mates.

Unable to stay in the South with his family, inarticulate in sharing with them his understanding of Buddhist dharma, Ray goes back after bumming it along the Mexican border just as he left, back west to work as a Cascadia fire-warden at Desolation Peak's lookout. There, as the story ends, he finds his expected peace. "I made raspberry Jello the color of rubies in the setting sun." (183) The interim return to California, full of parties in Marin, as with the previous woozy bashes in San Francisco, does drag the momentum down for long stretches of this short book. The contrasts between boho decadence and natural purity may be intentional, but the wobbly, hungover funk does hobble the pace. The comparisons between energy and dissipation do, on the other hand, underscore the lesson of impermanence, even of happy times, and the necessity for self-discipline.

Japhy reminds Ray of the change coming when more people join their refusal to conform. "East'll meet West anyway. Think what a great world revolution will take place when East meets West finally, and it'll be guys like us that can start the thing. Think of millions of guys all over the world with rucksacks on their backs tramping around the back country and hitchhiking and bringing the word down to everybody." (155)

Kerouac here's still young enough-- even if nearly a decade past Snyder-- to hope. "Something will come of it in the Milky Way of eternity stretching in front of all our phantom misunderstandings, friends. I felt like telling Japhy everything I thought but I knew it didn't matter and moreover he knew it anyway and silence is the golden mountain." (53) This typical passage captures the tone of the novel-as-memoir. Based as Douglas notes on smart predecessors like Thomas Wolfe, Melville, Dostoyevsky, Joyce, and Céline, Kerouac sought an admirable purity in his style.

It may be difficult for us half-a-century later, jaded, to hear its freshness, but its sincerity lingers in moments such as when he tells us of the moon on water as they descended the mountain on a dark night. "Everything up there had smelled of ice and snow and heartless spine rock. Here there was the smell of sun-heated wood, sunny dust resting in the moonlight, lake mud, flowers, straw, all those good things of the earth." (68-69) This may not be the more manic Kerouac that made him famous, but it may give today's uneasy riders a more lasting lesson in the legacy he left us.

(Reviews posted of the 50th Anniversary and Penguin Classics editions yesterday to Amazon US. See also Kerouac's recently published notebooks as "Some of the Dharma" and "Wake Up! A Life of the Buddha")


alanindyfed said...

One of the seminal books of my early life along with books by Hermann Hesse and Colin Wilson.

AM said...

Can't get the current review of Skeptics - just says the page does not exist. A bit ike god I imagine!!

Chris Berry said...

You've made some interesting points John. Not having experienced this time myself, I often wonder about the relevance of the beat movement in today's world...

Still, having just spent some time around both veterans and newcomers to the rucksack revolution, it's obvious to me that there's more than just play acting and nostalgia to all that is hip and beat now (then?)...Coincidentally, a younger generation family member just passed through town on his way back to settle down with kinfolk in NC after having spent the winter in the Sierras/SF trying on his dharma...

All social relevance (or not) aside, it's always a pleasure to read your thoughtful reviews...Hope you're own personal Matterhorn is covered with snow and ice and not slurpies and lost Mickey ears...