March 06, 2013

The Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac

I can honestly say this book wasn't for me. I should preface by saying though, that I experienced this book as an audiobook. And the only thing that I'll really say about that is that the reader spoke clearly and at a good pace. Otherwise, this review is for the content of the book.

Smith is a "Dharma Bum" roaming around (for most of the book anyway) the Western part of the USA with some buddies who also subscribe to his philosophy of life. And that philosophy is a mix of their version of Buddhism, nature, parties, and general free-spiritedness. I'm told this book has something to do with a "Beat" culture that I've never actually heard of before as well, so I can't comment if that's true or not. Smith, along with his buddy Japhy, do a lot of hiking, reflecting, writing haiku's and other poetry and have a few orgy's thrown in for good measure. The overall theme is one of Smith finding himself, and understanding the world around him, and Kerouac uses the life of a backpacker/survivalist/bum to show how even someone with a meager existence can appreciate the beauty in all things.

Smith and Japhy, despite being Zen self proclaimed Buddhists, are very much superficial people. I can't decide if Kerouac really did believe they were spiritual and had the right idea, or he was making fun of them. I'd like to believe the latter but I've read that the character of Smith is somewhat based on Kerouac himself. That's not to say they were all that bad though. They both had a genuine appreciation for nature and an easy personality that wasn't quick to anger. Those are admirable traits in anyone, even if they are a "bum". But they did seem to mooch a lot off of other people, and usually Buddhists don't seem to advertise what they are. Smith truly is the main character of this book and he is very fair in describing his friend Japhy. He mostly sings high praises for him, unless Japhy is questioning Smith's alcohol intake. And we do see everything out of Smith's eyes so they follow his perspective and views on Buddhism, nature, the people they meet, and everything else.

A lot of this book comes off as pretentious. Like Kerouac was saying that if you weren't doing the things these people were or thinking the same things, then you probably weren't all that enlightened. And I did bristle at that. Especially considering that these people were mooching off of everybody and only occasionally working for their keep. There are different roads to enlightenment. But I will give him the pretty writing in this book. There were some great descriptions of food and nature and I especially enjoyed the mountain climbing section near the beginning of the book. I think that could have been a whole book in itself and there was no need for the rest of it, as I didn't find the rest particularly interesting. There was also a lot of mention of Buddhism, but it's not the type of Buddhism that I've heard a little about, but more an Americanized "fun" version that allowed excess. Kerouac also threw in a lot of Buddhist terms that if you didn't know what they meant, well too bad, because he wasn't going to tell you. It was another way of being pretentious almost, as Kerouac expected any reader to already know what he was talking about and be part of his social group. Or at least that's how it seemed.

Just not a book for me. Maybe I'm the wrong generation or just think a lot differently than Kerouac. I can appreciate the descriptive stream-of-consciousness writing, but I just didn't appreciate the message of this book.

The Dharma Bums
Copyright 1958
AudioBook Experience

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