Published by Penguin Books on 1978 (original pub. 1958)
Genres: Classics, Fiction
The Dharma Bums is a novel about Japhy and Ray, a pair of Zen Lunatics with different approaches to their Buddhism. While Japhy is wild and joyful, springing from girls’ beds to mountaintops and planning to lose himself on a mystical mountain in Japan, Ray is a more serious character who struggles with his philosophies and his efforts toward detachment.
Ray (based on Kerouac himself) and Japhy (based on the poet and essayist Gary Snyder) become close friends as they compose haikus, hike the wild mountains, share stories, and discuss their views of Buddhism and of America. Oh, and there are drugs, drunken orgies, late-night poetry jams, and two months spent in solitude on the top of a mountain, Matterhorn.
There are many things I love about this book, but my favorite parts are when Ray submerges himself in the beauty of nature, hiking mountains both with friends and on his own. My soul is happiest in the mountains, and I loved Kerouac’s descriptions of climbing these hulking giants. I could not agree more that, “There’s no feeling in the world like washing your face in cold water on a mountain morning.” I love the glorious thrill of being high in the cold air, surrounded by trees and wind and sun; it’s at once peaceful and exhilarating, and Kerouac really captures that feeling.
The Dharma Bums is also about a generation of people struggling with the homogeneity of American society. Faced with colleges that churn out same-thinking people, the rise of the suburbs, and the popularity of television, the Beat generation was frustrated by the lack of creativity and original thought. Ray, Japhy, and the circle of friends who surround them rebel against the pale conformity surrounding them. They seek meaning in poetry, partying and alternative philosophies.
“Everything was fine with the Zen Lunatics, the nut wagon was too far away to hear us. But there was a wisdom in it all, as you’ll see if you take a walk some night on a suburban street and pass house after house on both sides of the street each with the lamplight of the living room, shining golden, and inside the little blue square of the television, each living family riveting its attention on probably one show; nobody talking; silence in the yards; dogs barking at you because you pass on human feet instead of on wheels. You’ll see what I mean, when it begins to appear like everybody in the world is soon going to be thinking the same way and the Zen Lunatics have long joined dust, laughter on their dust lips. Only one thing I’ll say for the people watching television, the millions and millions of the One Eye: they’re not hurting anyone while they’re sitting in front of that Eye. But neither was Japhy…. I see him in future years stalking along with full rucksack, in suburban streets, passing the blue television windows of homes, alone, his thoughts the only thoughts not electrified to the Master Switch.”
This is a slim book, but it’s bursting with life and wisdom and the quest for enlightenment.