Friday, August 10, 2007

Jack Kerouac - The Dharma Bums

Jack Kerouac is one of the best, if not the best, author that I’ve ever found. Especially since he was an author with a wide and varied body of work. Jaroslav Hasek (see below) wrote one very good book – which in fact he never actually completed, finishing only four out of a planned six volumes of The Good Soldier Schweik. Whereas Kerouac, effectively, spanned an entire generation of subculture with his work. It’s fair to say Kerouac is synonymous with the ‘Beat generation’, although so much so as to obscure the variety and contrasts of his books; from the hopeful ‘Great American Novel’ of The Town and the City, to the intensity of his classic On the Road as well as his later output, such as Big Sur, in which ‘the mirror of the Beat way of life is hammered at and it shatters’.

Which is why, in a way, I am choosing for this post his 1959 book, The Dharma Bums - even beyond the fact that it is, probably, my favourite Kerouac novel. I won’t pretend that I didn’t get into Kerouac through, and directly from, On the Road. Neither will I even suggest that that book is less than deserving of its immense acclaim. Rather, I hope to present The Dharma Bums as a gentler, perhaps subtler introduction to the beauty and sublime genius of Kerouac, uncrowned King of the Beats.

First of all, The Dharma Bums is, and isn’t, a book about Buddhism. Mostly, it is; although its religion is of an oblique nature, and the book has its fair share of the secular hedonism of On the Road. Basically, the novel follows Kerouac’s autobiographical alter ego, Ray Smith, journeying around the west coast of America with various Beat hipsters and ‘Buddhist cats’. There’s a loose dichotomy of urban, Frisco loucheness and wild, outdoorsy solitude. It starts with Smith on the railroad, hopping freights, and ends with him alone on ‘Mt. Desolation’, a Washington peak where the idealistic nature-lover gets a job as a fire lookout. In between, there’s poetry, drink, girls, and various socially uncountenanced nonsensical high jinks – roughly in that order.

The Dharma Bums is a classic Kerouac story of vibrancy and exuberant lifestyles – ‘A descriptive excitement unmatched since the days of Thomas Wolfe’, according to the New York Times – but also a beautifully tender exposition of idealism, compassion and small philosophical virtues. At the centre of The Dharma Bums spiritual and literary heart is the character of Japhy Ryder (in real life, Gary Snyder, a noted ecologist, socialist and poet). Japhy, throughout a bosom pal to the older Kerouac, is a devotee of Zen Buddhism and plays the foil for Kerouac’s efforts to find peace and understanding in the titular Dharma (dharma loosely translates as ‘truth’ or ‘law’, and is fundamental to the terminology of Buddhism and spiritual enlightenment). His efforts are not entirely successful, as is explained in this Penguin blurb:

"Following the explosive energy of On the Road comes The Dharma Bums, in which Keroauc charts the spiritual quest of a group of friends in search of Dharma, or Truth. Ray Smith and his friend Japhy, along with Morley the yodeller, head off into the high Sierras to seek the lesson of solitude and experience the Zen way of life. But in wildly Bohemian San Francisco, with its poetry jam sessions, marathon drinking bouts and experiments in ‘yabyum’, they find the ascetic route distinctly hard to follow"

Part of the beauty of The Dharma Bums is its contradictions and simple, honest humanities. Penguin recently released a deluxe classic edition with a scholarly introductory essay by Ann Douglas (and extra nice artwork to boot) which discusses the philosophical, moral and psychological issues of the book – of which there are complex and many. Nevertheless, they fail to obscure either the innocent idealism and zany happenings, or lyrical and prosaic sensibilities (of which I am conscious of having said far too little here) of this wonderful novel.

Indeed, the literary quality of this, and all of Keroauc’s work (his ‘poetry of pure prose’) is what ultimately assures it a devoted readership. As a mere taste, here is one description of many of the marvellous ‘Japhy Ryder’, the archetypical Dharma Bum:

"…About a mile from there, way down Milvia and then upslope toward the big campus of the University of California, behind another big old house on a quiet street (Hillegass), Japhy lived in his own shack which was infinitely smaller than ours, about twelve by twelve, with nothing in it but typically Japhy appurtenances that showed his belief in the simple monastic life – no chairs at all, not even one sentimental rocking chair, but just straw mats. In the corner was his famous rucksack with cleaned-up pots and pans all fitting into one another in a compact unit and all tied and put away inside a knotted-up blue bandana. Then his Japanese wooden pata shoes, which he never used, and a pair of black inside-pata socks to pad around softly in over his pretty straw mats, just room for your four toes on one side and your big toe on the other. He had a slew of orange crates all filled with beautiful scholarly books, some of them in Oriental languages, all the great sutras, comments on sutras, the complete works of D.T. Suzuki and a fine quadruple-volume edition of Japanese haikus. He also had an immense collection of valuable general poetry. In fact if a thief should have broken in there the only things of real value were the books … crates made his table, on which, one late sunny afternoon as I arrived,was steaming a peaceful cup of tea at his side as he bent his serious head to the Chinese signs of the poet Han Shan. Coughlin had given me the address and I came there, seeing first Japhy’s bicycle on the lawn in front of the big house out front (where his landlady lived) then the few odd boulders and rocks and funny little trees he’d brought back from mountain jaunts to set out in his own ‘Japanese tea garden’ or ‘tea-house garden’, as there was a convenient pine tree soughing over his little domicile.

A peacefuller scene I never saw than when, in that rather nippy late red afternoon, I simply opened his little door and looked in and saw him at the end of the little shack, sitting cross-legged on a Paisley pillow on a straw mat, with his spectacles on, making him look old and scholarly and wise, with book on lap and the little tin teapot and porcelain cup steaming at his side. He looked up very peacefully, saw who it was, said, ‘Ray, come in,’ and bent his eyes again to the script.

‘What you doing?’

‘Translating Han Shan’s great poem called “Cold Mountain” written a thousand years ago some of it scribbled on the sides of cliffs hundreds of miles away from any other living beings.’

‘Wow.’ … "

(Ch. 3)


blend77 said...

Easily one of the best book i have EVER read... Kerouac is alltime fave of mine and this may be his best book...

have you read the Windblown World journals of his? fascinating look into his personal life and his creative process...

gabbagabbahey said...

No, haven't even heard of it, I think! I'll have to add it to my list of Keroauc to buy (it's a long list)

I think this is not only one of Kerouac's most creative, but also one of his most accessible, which is kind of why I posted it first. Next I'm gonna do what is really the sequel to this, Desolation Angels. It's darker, more experimental and equally fascinating

blend77 said...

check windblown world.. it was released a few years ago... pages are straight from his jounral she kept while writing T & C and On the Road...

great stuff... some is very abstract... talks about hanging out with ginsberg alot...

Anonymous said...

This is my favourite Kerouac.
On The Road is incredible, but vastly worse than this work of genius.