The Dharma Bums, by Jack Kerouac, 1958
Jack Kerouac wrote a bunch of books in the fifties, using his ‘automatic’ writing style, like a jazzman. No re-writes, only one time to get it right. The Dharma Bums (‘dharma’ means ‘truth’) is one of these books, which included “On the Road.” Kerouac’s writing style inspired a younger poet named Gary Snyder to adopt that same zen. Some critics would call Kerouac an amateur, but when you think of it, laboring over each word or sentence with a nail file might be easier than letting it all come out well the first time. Ask John Coltrane.
Gary Snyder, under the pseudonym “Japhy Ryder,” is Kerouac’s fellow ‘bum’ in this book – along with other pseudo-nonymous fellows like Allen Ginsberg (“Alvah Goldbook”); Michael McClure (“Ike Oshay”); Neal Cassady who appears in “On the Road” too (here as “Cody Pomeroy); Kenneth Rexroth (“Reinhold Cacoethes” – don’t laugh); Alan Watts (“Arthur Whane”) and John Montgomery (“Henry Morley” – a truly eruditely odd individual and Berkley librarian). And who knows, maybe Ferlinghetti or William Burroughs are buried in here too somewhere, under some verbal rock.
The younger Snyder actually teaches Kerouac a thing or two. Like orthodox Buddhism, which was in fashion among the literati of San Francisco in the 50s. They’d done got sick of Jesus evidently. And mountain-climbing. And camping. Both had a thing for nature, and really the ‘high’ points of this book are Kerouac’s meditations on mountain-tops, in deserts, under trees and on the beach. Snyder gets Kerouac to buy a little tent, sleeping bag and cook set. Kerouac eventually sleeps more in the sleeping bag outdoors than inside his shack at Cortes Madera in Marin County, just over the hill from Muir Woods.
The book has a simple layout. First the greatest poetry reading of American time - the October 13, 1955 Six Gallery poetry reading in San Francisco. Ginsberg read “Howl” and Snyder read “A Berry Feast.” Kerouac encouraged the crowd and bought wine for all. Then Snyder, Kerouac and Montgomery go up and down 'Matterhorn' Mountain in 2 days – and that says something for amateurs. Snyder finally makes it, while Kerouac enjoys the Buddha of quitting just before the peak. Kerouac follows that with a cross-country hitch-hiking and hopping-trains trip back to North Carolina, where his family lives, to test his camping skills. And if you’ve ever let yourself be guided by the accidents of the road while hitching, you will enjoy his description.
After that, Kerouac and Snyder settle into a shack at Cortes Madera, have naked, drunk bongo parties, savor their simple foods and do that Buddhist thing, or at least talk the Buddhist talk. You see, Snyder is scheduled to go to Japan and join a Zen monastery of some sort, and that hangs over most of the book. Snyder encouraged Kerouac to become a fire lookout as he had done, so Kerouac gets a job on Desolation Mountain up in the Cascades near the Canadian border, the same place as Snyder. Kerouac spends two months alone on a mountain above the clouds doing everything but seeing fires – mostly getting close to nature and satori. There the book ends.
How real was Kerouac’s Buddhism? Kerouac is really a very American soul, and his Catholicism saturated his Buddhism, which he saw as one thing. Watts, the ortho-Buddha-boy, said Kerouac had “Zen flesh but no Zen bones.” Even in the Dharma Bums, Kerouac (who’s pseudonym in this book is “Ray Smith”) gives Snyder’s Buddhism a running critique. Later, of course, Kerouac dropped the Buddha talk and walk. He later died of alcoholism, which is a sub-note lurking in this book like an infestation of ants.
Kerouac’s writing, if you’ve never read the beast, veers between colloquialism and poetry, in long drawn-out sentences. It is always accessible. He’s child-like and childless. This book gives a good picture of American life in the artsy margins. A bunch of refugees from capitalism - like Snyder, who was basically an anarchist - refuse to do an honest day’s work if they can help it, and live to enjoy life instead. When money, perhaps, was not the only thing. A lost time, indeed. When regular people had some standing, and simplicity was not a curse-word.
And I bought it at Mayday Books.
"HOWL" is also on sale at the Mayday.
(written with as few edits as possible, K-style.)
Red Frog, December 17, 2011