Sometimes, books are far more important for the lens through which you read them than for the books themselves. This was given to me as a graduation present from high school by my older brother’s best friend, a wannabe Bohemian bum on whom I’d had a half-secret crush since the seventh grade. Nearly a decade after that gift, having clawed my way to other graduations (and heard that that guy is now getting married to some other gal), I’m finally reading it. I can see so clearly that friend’s delight in the recognition that things can be beautiful and that the society he disliked so much didn’t have to be everything. A good portion of any liking for this book I have is in remembering my friend, then, and I’m not sure whether Jack Kerouac and Ray Smith would applaud that or not.
The Dharma Bums is part of what might very loosely be called a series, I think, called The Duluoz Legend by Kerouac himself and including the more famous On the Road. I don’t know whether the in medias res of this book’s beginning is true, then, or the product of my not having read anything else of the series—probably both. Either way, you are dropped into the life and narrative of Ray Smith, a Buddhist wino writer in the 1950s who is constantly trying to understand being nothing like his Zen linguistic logger friend Japhy.
The characters are interesting and very vibrant, if not completely identifiable (names aren’t usually immediately attached as people appear and exit; it’s more of a contextual introduction). It took a minute to get used to Kerouac’s writing style, a sort of headlong rush through ideas that have never troubled themselves with things like proper commas or semicolons as they roll down the hill of bonfire parties and orgies and hitchhiking cross-country with now-impossible jaunts into Mexico. It was irksome at first, this fall-forward rhythm, but it became part of the feel of these meandering lives with great drive but no real trajectory (a description the Dharma Bums would wholeheartedly embrace, I feel).
This also has that sort of philosophical arrogance of your 20s, a claim I can make because I’m in my 20s and I’ve been that arrogant. It’s that place where you’ve discovered that you don’t have to live in the system and obey The Man (Kerouac has serious feelings about television’s influence especially) and you know the world is beautiful and people can be beautiful if you just pay attention. That’s cool. I’ve heard the sentiment doesn’t really last, but it’s nice.
I can’t get behind the sort of new-age/rooted Buddhism that these bums are seeking and feeling out, but I’m glad I finally read this, on a journey, in my 20s, thinking of my shaggy-haired friend the guitarist who gave me a book in congratulations. The narrative makes me think a little of Hopeful and her hiking adventures—so I’ve sent it on to her, because this is a book that wants to be shared. I told her to give it back when she’s done, because there’s an inscription inside from my friend, and I am not so distanced from all possessions yet that that doesn’t mean something to me.
The thing about this book is that, of itself and its own writing, it’s not that phenomenal. But the doors it opens, and the memories to which it attaches itself, are myriad. It’s a book that makes me want to write, and to sit under the stars and contemplate the completely inexplicable God, and to see that God in other people, even when they suck, because they are still His creations at that point, and that makes them beautiful despite their being aggravating. Read it for that. Read it for the wonder of the Bums, for the galaxies behind them that were totally colored by drugs and sex and weird half-Buddhism, but are galaxies all the same, and can be reached while sober. And then say hi to my friend the up-and-coming Bum, if you see him still chasing the universe, and tell him I’m happy he’s getting married to someone good for him.
Rating: 3/5 stars