The Dharma Bums

by Jack Kerouac

The Dharma Bums CoverThere’s something inexplicably beautiful in Kerouac’s spontaneous prose. It sometimes contains dated jargon, awkward phrases, and run-on sentences, but there’s this raw clarity in his descriptions that I find so endearing. While the author’s writing in The Dharma Bums may not have touched me as consistently as that of On the Road, he still had the uncanny ability to evoke conflicting emotions with seemingly simple statements.

The Dharma Bums is about Kerouac’s search for The Truth––meaning and spirit––through the American landscape. Ray, the author’s stand-in and our narrator, hops freights and drinks too much. His quest takes him from tiny shacks, where his fellow Beat poets share poetry and party nonstop for days at a time, to the secluded wilderness to meditate and reflect. It seems interesting to me that Kerouac clearly caught wind of the changing times, when greater U. S. society seemed to be breaking further from the author’s simple way of life, to a culture of mass consumption, to a loss of America’s soul. Though, perhaps a dulling of the spirit is a more appropriate sentiment: That which Kerouac loved, that which he clung so closely to, was losing its clear definition and was being pushed to the fringes of society. Buddhism is what offered him that Truth, that spirit, that purity, and most of the story explores the vastly different meanings this spirituality has for everyone he encounters. At least a few times this leads to heated arguments over this Truth that so many around him seek, but Ray is often reminded that no one holds monopoly over it, that each character’s place in life brought him to understand the world in entirely different ways, but each of them still sees a valid reality.

I feel like it can be easy to lose focus of the greater “narrative” at the heart of The Dharma Bums––Kerouac’s rambling prose occasionally having that effect on myself, anyway––but the snapshots that hit us when we come back around are beautiful, with an author looking outward to the world and religion to learn about himself, in a way that only the purity that Beat literature possesses can do proper justice.