Bumming Around the Mountain: Jack Kerouac’s The Dharma Bums

The Dharma Bums The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac

Maybe Kerouac isn’t for me. I’d tried reading On the Road a number of times, over different periods of my life, but never found myself getting more than a dozen or two pages into the thing. I realize he’s an influential author and writers I enjoy often namecheck him, so I figured I’d give him another shot. And actually finish the book this time.
Enter The Dharma Bums. Set in 1956 and written a few years later, this book follows Kerouac stand-in Ray Smith and Japhy Ryder (based on Gary Snyder) as they tramp along countryside, up and down a mountain and along trails, all the while spouting off poetry and bickering about Buddhism. The whole thing is rather precious: two young white kids, drunk on their self-importance, going around raising a ruckus but an important one, because they’re important, ya know?

The whole thing reminded me a lot of JD Salinger at his worst with cutesy Zen attitude towards people and preaching towards the audience over their religion. But Salinger pulled off his lines about the fat lady because his characters were sympathetic: Teddy, for all his overt Zen, was also a cute kid.

By comparison, Ryder and Smith are obnoxious. They throw wild parties and punch holes in walls; they get drunk on port and shout half-baked haikus at each other; they’re judgy and misogynistic. There’s precious few women in this book and the ones Kerouac includes are flawed people meant to make the leads look better. One gets drunk and naked without much prodding, another commits suicide because she doesn’t listen to Smith. Or maybe she grew tired of listening to Smith; at least I could shut the book when I tired of him.

There are all kinds of stuff here that irked me. Kerouac writes in frantic rushes, like he was blowing through a scroll in one pass. It’s a neat trick, but I tired of it pretty quickly. His patronizing attitude towards the people around him got me, too: the bum he meets on a train is a saint and his brother-in-law is really a good guy, just someone who cares about material possessions a little too much.

And good God, the poetry. I wouldn’t have minded it so much if it weren’t for what Kerouac sets it among. Wild drunken parties where people say lines like “And I thought the west coast was dead!”, wild drunken readings where everyone thinks they’re setting the stage for some kind of revolution, wild drunken afternoons where they stomp through town shouting at each other. In the margins, Kerouac shows Ryder as someone devoted to his craft and worked hard at it – he works alone, tells Smith to cut back on the booze – but by book’s end, Ryder’s fled to Japan and Smith is the hero, a functional alcoholic looking forward to spending his pay cheque on a bottle of scotch.

There are a few things I liked here. Occasionally, Kerouac wrote something I’d underline. And the Penguin Classics edition comes with a nice cover by comic artist Jason which has the cast as giant dogs (every time I tried to picture Smith, I kept thinking of Achewood’s Ray Smuckles). I especially like Allen Ginsberg as a mutt with thick-framed glasses and a smoke hanging out of his snout. Then again, you know the line about judging book covers…

Rating: 3/10. More than few times in this book, Smith and Ryder argue about what the Buddha is. It’s nothing, it’s mud, etc. Once, Ryder says it’s a dried up turd. I don’t know much about Buddha, but I know I’d use that description for something else.


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