Lyrical, moving, poetic, more real than real, The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac is almost a memoir, detailing his growth and experiences as a Buddhist and his adventures with his poetic friend and mentor, Japhy Ryder. Though never the bestseller On the Road was, The Dharma Bums has nonetheless been a very influential novel, a harbinger of the Beat Poets, the hippie movement, and the desire of an increasing number of Americans to go back to nature to embrace a simpler but more spiritually meaningful lifestyle. This book is a classic that deserves a seat of honor on the Olympian heights of American literature. It expresses a soul-searching yearning and rootlessness, a search for the meaning of life and one’s place in this crazy illusory world of ours, one of the Big Themes prevalent in some of the world’s best literature.
In The Dharma Bums, Jack takes the name of Ray Smith. We are introduced to him first as he hops “a freight out of Los Angeles at high-noon one day in late September 1955.” He acts the way you’d expect the typical bum (if there ever was such a thing) of the time to act - he hops freight trains for free rides, hitchhikes, buys his clothes at Army Surplus and Goodwill stores, carries his belongings with him in a rucksack, and drinks wine whenever the chance presents itself to him. But he differs from many of them in that he does it because it is a part of his spiritual journey, his awakening awareness to the lessons of Buddhism, including the knowledge that all life is pain and suffering.
This knowledge to him and many Buddhists brings him happiness as well as sadness. A Catholic all his life, Ray does not substitute Buddha for Christ and Buddhism for Catholicism but sees the ways they are similar. At their best, both reveal deep truths and have the power to change people’s lives for the better. He equates, it seems, the road to becoming a Bodhisattva and attaining the spiritual enlightenment of Nirvana to becoming more Christlike, loving and forgiving to everyone.
While Japhy Ryder (the Zen poet Gary Synder) is the biggest influence on Ray’s life, he questions why Ray still maintains his belief in God and Christ. Japhy, with his goatee, brings to mind for Ray how he imagines a Chinese Zen Buddhist might look, with a mischievous twinkle in his eye but with a heart and soul that cries out to and embraces and loves everyone and everything in the universe. Japhy gives freely of his possessions to Ray and to others, letting Smith have his sneakers when they climb up the Matterhorn in California during one of the novel’s high points and times of bliss and happiness - satori - in Ray’s life. Ray does not make it to the pinnacle of the Matterhorn but rationalizes that the climbing of it, his feelings of happiness, and his time spent with his friend Japhy are more important than making it to the top, though he envies Japhy for having done it.
Who are “Dharma Bums,” one might ask? Why should we be interested in reading about them and maybe even want to be like them, if only in our imaginations? They are searchers and wanderers, like the Chinese wise men and mountain hermits of brush paintings; they are you and I; they’re anyone who searches for and yearns after dharma, the eternal truth about the way things are and will always be. The word “bums” is not meant to be derogatory or disparaging, but it acknowledges that none of us is any better than anyone else, that we all are born and all will die - we’re all in this together, for the better or worse. We’re bums, poets, politicians, priests, ordinary human beings following different paths and careers - but basically, we’re all the same.
Whether one is reading The Dharma Bums for the first time or rereading it for the hundredth, its timeless message rewards you with repeated readings. This edition has an excellent introduction subtitled “A Hoop For The Lowly” (how Smith describes rainbows in a haiku when he has a job as a fire spotter on Desolation Peak near the conclusion of the novel) by Ann Douglas, practically mini-Cliffs Notes identifying different themes of the book and the real people behind the names Kerouac uses for his characters. For instance, Alvah in the novel is the famous Beat poet, Alvin Ginsburg, author of Howl. Also, the introduction presents biographical information about Kerouac and writes about his influence on other authors, such as Hunter S. Thompson and William Burroughs. One other impressive aspect of this edition is that it is a hardback one, and should last through a person’s lifetime, if treated well. I highly recommend The Dharma Bums in any format, but this fiftieth anniversary edition is done very well and well worth getting.