If you have read Siddhartha by Herman Hesse and liked it, then Wake Up: A Life of the Buddha by Jack Kerouc, which was never published in Kerouac’s lifetime, is a book you’ll also likely enjoy. It’s a retelling of the prince who would become the Buddha’s life - namely Siddhartha, also known as Gotama Sakyamuni, the Blessed One, or the Awakened One in this book. Kerouac quotes from and was heavily influenced by a copy of Dwight Goddard’s anthology A Buddhist Bible, which he discovered in the San Jose, California public library. Buddhist thinking pervades much of Kerouac’s writing, and when Kerouac is at his best, it blends very lyrically with his style - in his novel The Dharma Bums, for example, and in some of his poetry, such as his collection Book of Haikus.
Is Wake Up: A Life of the Buddha also an example of Jack Kerouac in top form, at the height of his creative powers? Is it worth reading, or a book which perhaps should not have been published and should be passed on by readers today? The answer to these questions depends on to what extent a person feels comfortable with the Buddhist philosophy, and also on whether or not any book that explains why a person become a devotee of Buddhism can match up to a telling of how Buddhism has changed one’s life for the better.
The Bible teaches valuable lessons and is worth reading for many reasons, as are the books of all the other religions and philosophies that exist; but, generally speaking, personal testimonials that are light on the preaching are more interesting to most people. Ancient history read in books is one thing; how this history lives on in people’s hearts and souls and affects people’s lives today is another. Awakening to the significance and relevance Buddhism had for people of long ago by reading about how it affected all aspects of Jack Kerouac’s life as depicted by him in The Dharma Bums makes Buddhism for me, at least, way more interesting than reading about the nuts and bolts of Buddhism, such as the Buddha’s learning of and teaching of the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path in Wake Up, Siddhartha, or any other similar book.
Enough side-stepping; no, Wake Up is not an example of Kerouac at the top of his creative powers. I and many other readers would likely have preferred it if a previously unheard-of Kerouac novel with heavy Buddhist influences had been unearthed rather than a book like this. Is it worthy of having been published and for us to take the time to read it and ponder over its spiritual and philosophical significance? The answer is a definite yes; it is, and it provides us with a insights as to how Buddhism affected Kerouac’s all-too-short life and brought him the joy and inner peace that is apparent when one reads The Dharma Bums.
So what if it’s not a sequel to The Dharma Bums? Rather than my trying to compare apples and oranges (i.e. Wake Up to The Dharma Bums), I base this review on how well Wake Up retells Siddhartha’s life and relates the basic tenets of Buddhist philosophy. Even with this in mind, there is Hesse’s classic Siddhartha to consider and compare Wake Up to, which is stiff competition. However, though Kerouac’s version is far shorter than Hesse’s (at only 146 pages), it succeeds fairly well and manages to maintain in certain turns of phrase Kerouac’s poetic touch.
Should one spend one’s hard-earned money on Wake Up? Yes, but for the right reasons. Don’t think that it’s going to be a novel like The Dharma Bums, On the Road or Big Sur, or you’ll likely be sadly disappointed. Read it more because you are or have become interested in Buddhism or want to learn more about it - or because perhaps you want to see for yourself how it stacks up to Siddhartha, or because you simply collect Kerouac’s works and want to have it for the sake of a feeling of completeness. Wake Up is recommended. It’d be bad karma and going against the dharma if I didn’t.