Stuart Ayris's Reviews > The Dharma Bums

The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac
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Mar 08, 2012

it was amazing

Although The Dharma Bums was published in 1958, the semi-fictionalised events it describes all occurred prior to the publication of On The Road a year earlier. On The Road was itself written in 1951 taking years to find a publisher. The interesting thing therefore about The Dharma Bums is that it describes Jack Kerouac (Ray Smith in the novel) before the fame of On The Road struck. And it literally did strike both with a suddenness and a force from which he would never truly recover.

The Dharma Bums is very much a novel about someone searching for a foothold in life, a way of being, of expressing yourself that is both true and honest but does not entirely lead to alienation from society. Jack Kerouac, in many of his novels, although this one in particular, is constantly battling with his yearning for spirituality and peace against the reckless nature that would ultimately lead to his death in 1969 at the age of 47.

Although narrated by Ray Smith (Jack Kerouac), the central character of the novel is Japhy Ryder (poet Gary Snyder). Japhy represents all that Ray strives to be - a woodsman, a mountain-climber, entrenched in Buddhism, a revered poet - and he still gets all the girls! Ray is forever following, literally, in Japhy's footsteps but he is never quite able to emulate him. Even when they make their beautifully described attempt to climb Matterhorn, Ray stops a hundred feet short whilst Japhy dances around on the peak.

When Ray is not with Japhy, he spends time hitch-hiking back to his mother and whilst there plays the part of the deep thinker, sleeping under the trees, going for long walks and trying to get his family to understand why lives the way he does. Ultimately his reasoning comes across as shallow and entirely out of context with the daily struggles of his sister and brother-in-law. Even when riding the rails or hitching lifts, Ray invariably has money in his pocket should he get tired of the travelling. And he is not always the most grateful of passengers, becoming angry on one occasion, having hitched a ride, when a mother gets baby food on his new rucksack. The whole dichotomy so familiar to so many of us is the putting into practice the spritual and humane beliefs we hold to be true. In Japhy Ryder we have someone who is able to do that more often than not. In Ray Smith we have a man who just falls short, a voyeur, a man who won't allow himself to fully let go.

As in Jack Kerouac's life, Ray Smith veers from veneration of the bodhisattva life-style to being a drunk, replete with paranoia and obnoxious traits that isolate himself from the very people he is trying to emulate.

When I first read The Dharma Bums many years ago I was influenced hugely by the idea of living a simple life, appreciating the wonders of natural beauty that abound everywhere we look and the possibility that an existence based on peace and tolerance was possible even in the modern society of tension and commerce. Reading it again now though it is the character of Ray Smith that really stands out. For in many ways I resemble him more than perhaps any other character in any other book I have read. And that is humbling to admit, believe me.

So The Dharma Bums is a special book for me. It began, when I first read it, a train of thought that led to me writing Tollesbury Time Forever - a novel about forgiveness and hope. Now it has given me the impetus to no longer be that voyeur who gives up a hundred feet short of the summit. Jack Kerouac died at 47 - lonely, shot to pieces, full of self-admonishment, having written the most honest, beautiful books I know. I'm nearly 43. When I go it won't be having drowned in a pool of cheap red wine, guilt and what might-have-beens - it will be because I have fallen off the mountain-top dancing like a crazy fool.

Where once I tried to emulate Jack Kerouac as he tried to emulate Gary Snider, I'm now just going to be me. I just wonder how long that will last - paticularly with the three bottles of wine for a tenner deal still on at the corner shop...
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