The Dharma Bums from Road Novels 1957-1960 by Jack Kerouac. Edited by Douglas Brinkley. Library of America. 864 pp. ***1/2
Jack Kerouac is the spiritual father of every whacked-out hippie who ever stumbled his way through the Sixties, head bobbing in mild agreement, mouth perpetually grinning, a beard flowing around his collar. Kerouac himself was a straight-looking guy—especially in the Elliott Erwitt photo that seems to appear on all his books—but his mind was wild, full of all the reading he’d done and the information he’d acquired. I don’t know when, exactly, he turned to the Dharma—he wrote The Dharma Bums in 1957, after On the Road had been a huge success but Viking had rejected all of his other manuscripts—and he had the enthusiasm of a recent convert and the false expertise of an autodidact. He talked Dharma to everyone he saw, even guys who picked him up hitchhiking. But there was something essentially sweet about his attitude.
The hero of the book—probably more than even the narrator, whose name is Ray Smith but is obviously Kerouac—is Gary Snyder, renamed Japhy Ryder. Snyder if anything is more obnoxious about his Buddhism, very consciously the older Dharma brother, constantly scolding Kerouac for his wild lifestyle, telling him little Zen tidbits, urging him to be more regular in his habits. Snyder seems from an early life to have created his own version of a monkish life, living frugally and close to the land. His small cabin is extremely neat, but he welcomes Kerouac to stay with him (Jack sleeps in a sleeping bag under a bush outside, and meditates there as well, often at night). The two have an uneasy alliance, but it seems to work.
Also on hand are Allen Ginsburg (Alvah Goldbook), Kenneth Rexroth (Rheinhold Cacoethes) and Philip Whalen (Warren Coughlin), who eventually gave his life to the Dharma and became a Soto Zen priest. Whalen seems to support the narrator in his newfound enthusiasm, but Ginsberg is surprisingly skeptical, telling his friends to stop with all the Dharma talk (the reader might agree, actually. It gets tiresome). Ginsberg would eventually find his own guru in Chogyam Trungpa and his Dharma in that brand of Tibetan Buddhism, though he was never apparently much of a meditator. His young friends at this point were obsessed with Zen, mostly the Rinzai variety.
I don’t know what their sources were—there wasn’t nearly as much around in those days—but I assume the main source was D.T. Suzuki, though the narrator also mentions Dwight Goddard. Their studies seem anything but systematic. But they were obviously intense and sincere.
The incidents in this novel take place in 1955 and ’56, when Kerouac was 32 and 33. He had published a poorly-received first novel, The Town and the City, in 1950; in ’57 he would publish On the Road and become world famous. And yet essentially in this novel he seems like a big lovable strong and very enthusiastic boy, and as far as I can tell he remained a boy for his entire life. In the middle of The Dharma Bums he returns home to live with his mother for a period of time, and he was apparently living with his mother when he died, at the age of 47. The Millennials seem to return to live with their parents frequently (at least you read about that phenomenon a lot) but Kerouac’s generation did not. I remember Robert Bly once remarking that there was something a little off about the fact that Kerouac lived with his mother. He hadn’t quite become a man.
And yet there’s something immensely charming about him as well, about a 32 year old man who still has wild enthusiasms, still hangs out with the guys and dives into new subjects, who has written what will become a world-famous novel but still acts like a kid. I don’t think he ever took on the trappings of a famous writer. He wasn’t in it for that.
He was in it because he was trying to discover the truth; that’s why he got involved in Buddhism too, and that was what was behind all the evenings when he went out to the bushes near Snyder’s cabin, or the woods behind his mother’s house, and sat in meditation. He was trying to break through to some major truth, and fairly often thought he had. At the end of the novel—at Snyder’s suggestion—he becomes a lookout at a cabin in Washington state at 6,000 feet, spends two months there entirely alone, keeping his eyes peeled for a fire. He never saw one. But he saw the world from a new perspective, especially when he stood on his head (a habit he’d acquired from a hobo he met while hitchhiking. The guy told him it would cure a lot of ills). You can’t help admiring Kerouac’s enthusiasm and his courage. I found the ascent to the mountain cabin, and the moment when his guides left him, terrifying. But he apparently found it exhilarating, and lasted out his stay.
Behind everything you read in this novel is the knowledge that this man bled to death with cirrhosis of the liver at the age of 47. By that time he seems to have become discouraged and disheartened, though I haven’t read a full biography (it’s one thing to be a boyish 32 year old, another thing to be living with your mother when you’re 46. And that boyish kind of writing, full of enthusiasm and wonder, doesn’t go over too well as the writer gets older. We begin to expect wisdom). The fervent Buddhist that we see in this novel does drink a lot (as does Gary Snyder, at least in the book) and was as likely to go out and sit after a night of boozing as any other time. Writers in those days seemed to believe there was veritas in vino a lot more than we do today. But that isn’t the kind of veritas Kerouac was looking for. This boyish man always seemed to be sucking on a bottle.
Early Buddhism in this country was marked by D.T. Suzuki’s form of Rinzai Zen. Suzuki was a brilliant and perhaps realized man, and his work was important, but in a way I think it led people like Kerouac astray. A few years after Kerouac heard his friend Ginsberg read “Howl” at City Lights Bookshop, the other Suzuki, Shunryu Suzuki, would show up in San Francisco and teach a different form of Zen. It de-emphasized realization and any kind of special experience, emphasized regularity of practice (“I sit at 5:00 AM,” he would tell people who came to learn about Buddhism. “You’re welcome to join me”) and a certain regularity in one’s life, the spiritual power that comes out of doing the same thing again and again. I can’t help wondering what Kerouac might have learned from that. He might have found a spiritual maturity that would have seeped into the rest of his life. He might have found a new maturity in his writing as well.
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