Written By Ciaran Dermott
“One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.”
Buddhism, hitchhiking and wine. Not much more needs to be said about what is perhaps Kerouac’s most spiritual novel. Written during the late 1950s, during a period where the novelist and the rest of his beat generation circle were experimenting with Zen Buddhism, the book is an intriguing little piece of literature. As is so common in Kerouac’s work, it is entirely autobiographical, with just the names of the other prestigious writers who appear changed, and uses the subculture of the 1950s to reach for lofty metaphysical heights.
“One man practicing kindness in the wilderness is worth all the temples this world pulls.”
Some context is necessary, as is with Kerouac’s writing in general. Beat fans will be sure to spot the famous poets, Allen Ginsberg and Gary Snyder, disguised under the thin pseudonyms of Alvah Goldbook and Japhy Ryder, as well as Kerouac himself appearing under the moniker of Ray Smith. Years after the events of his masterpiece On The Road, this novel charts a more mature group of beat writers, now more settled than during the wild adventures they had when they were young, but no less eager to discover the meaning of life. By this point in his life Kerouac has, to some extent, traded in the jazz bars and Benzedrine highs for meditation and Japanese scriptures, although to say he has given up the road would be a lie.
Indeed, a vast portion of The Dharma Bums is dedicated to hitchhiking. Kerouac’s life is still a blur of adventures as he rockets from state to state, visiting family and literary friends, climbing mountains with Japhy and ‘digging’ all the cities and vibes that he can. A particular highlight of his escapades comes in the form of a two day jaunt across the border to Mexico, which has shades of the final section of Road in it as Kerouac and the truck driver who is giving him a lift home party wildly into the night. The opening sequence is also particularly poignant, setting the tone for rest of the novel as Kerouac illegally stows aboard a freight train heading to San Francisco, encountering a bum who he dubs ‘The Midnight Ghost’.
“The closer you get to real matter, rock air fire and wood, boy, the more spiritual the world is.”
We get to see the San Francisco poetry reading of 1955 from Kerouac’s perspective, a night which needs no introduction to anyone even vaguely aware of the beats and their influence. It isn’t the first reading of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl however that really takes Kerouac’s eye, but rather how Snyder stands out from the rest of the intellectual crowd there. In his rugged outdoor gear, Snyder opens the door for Kerouac to explore a practical spirituality that connects him to what is really around him.
The rest of the novel is an account of their friendship, and from Kerouac’s point of view, a mentoring of sorts. Through Snyder he learns about the principles of Zen Buddhism, and compares it to his own Catholic upbringing. Through orgies, camping, parties and travel, the two men try to understand the nature of the reality they inhabit. Their goal is no different than any great philosopher or scientist who has ever lived. To find meaning.
“Aw I don’t wanta go to no such thing, I just wanta drink in alleys.’…
But you’ll miss all that, just for some old wine.’
There’s wisdom in wine, goddam it!’ I yelled. ‘Have a shot!”
The Dharma Bums is well known for being one of Kerouac’s most linear novels. His beautiful use of language is still present, combining spiritual talk with 1950s be-bop slang, but his signature spontaneous prose style is toned down to the point where the book reads like a typical novel. Die hard beat fans consider it boring for this reason, but it makes it much more accessible to less experienced readers, and The Dharma Bums is a great entry point to beat literature for this reason.
“colleges being nothing but grooming schools for the middle-class non-identity which usually finds its perfect expression on the outskirts of the campus in rows of well-to-do houses with lawns and television sets in each living room with everybody looking at the same thing and thinking the same thing at the same time while the Japhies of the world go prowling in the wilderness to hear the voice crying in the wilderness, to find the ecstacy of the stars, to find the dark mysterious secret of the origin of faceless wonderless crapulous civilization.”
This is a novel with more than just heart. This is a novel with spirit.