Book Review | Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac

Jack Kerouac in his time was an icon, and has since deepened as a cultural ethos much admired by the leaning-towards-Gypsys of our modern youth. He is considered the spokesperson for the beatniks in general, a group that since inspired a whole literary movement in the 50s, and 60s. Understanding this, and the general time frame in America when Kerouac wrote Dharma Bums, 1958, is important to truly understand the gravity Dharma Bums has had on American culture.

Dharma Bums is based for the most part in the West Coast of USA, San Francisco and Corte Madera, where Ray lives and hikes through the mountains with Japhy, the second most important figure throughout the book.

Ray Smith is the first person character whom Kerouac writes through. Japhy Ryder is the main friend and whom one comes to know as the younger but wiser (at least in ways of the woods and Buddhism). Buddhism, as one would take from the title, is mostly the main topic of discussion in the book as the characters, a group of fun loving and carefree Dharma Bums, find wine, poetry, and generally a good time.

It begins with Ray and another main character, Alvah Goldbook, living together and having a rise of a time meditating, discussing aesthetics and carrying on with wine. Alvah knows a guy named Japhy, who’s so deeply knowledgeable in Buddhism that he becomes the sort of a wise man of the group who has a lot to teach Ray, which begins in a big way when they head off on a 2 day hike up Matterhorn. Ray goes home for Christmas in North Carolina, but manages to get a job through Japhy as a fire lookout in the Cascade mountains of the PNW of Washington for the next summer. So, after Christmas is done with and the weather warms up, off Ray heads hitchhiking his way to the West Coast where he has arranged to spend the spring with Japhy in a cabin Sean Monahan owns and prepare for his time at the lookout.

I can see why this novel is a powerfully American novel. It is filled with fun loving, nomadic lifestyles of Northern California poets. A generation who nurtured to life an iconic American ideal that is still very prevalent in our modern 21st cultural identity; go daring, like none has gone before, and do it with the eye of celebration, of joy, of seeing the beauty in the world.

I found myself getting lost in a plasma of many characters that I feel is Kerouac’s style of skipped over slightly without explanation. Perhaps it’s his own expectation that everybody reading the book would know the character, or at least the kind of character and inferring a lot of their background story. There could be a meaning of this that I’m unaware of, aside from my own personal interest in exploring each of the characters further. Perhaps in itself is a key to getting the reader to read on with hopes to learn more of the character.

Perhaps that is the entire charm of this book, in that it seems a whirlygig of activity and people and concepts and motion that demands one being caught up in. I know that reading this book makes me want to dig more into the culture and friends Kerouac had, and to figure out which character was which in real life.

A good read. Suggested.

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