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April 23rd, 2007


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06:21 pm - The Dharma Bums

I meant to read Jack Kerouac's The Dharma Bums this past fall. For ten years, or so, it'd been kind of a tradition to read that book every summer. Some years I'd read the whole book, others I'd just read a chapter.

Last August, I was packing up The Dharma Bums along with the rest of the R.J. Hudson Eastern Wing Library. I flipped through it, came to the part where Gary Snyder is dogging poor old Jack Kerouac about his alcoholism. "Dogging," is possibly off the mark. You can read the whole book as a tale of a monk (Snyder), trying to save a wayward soul (Kerouac). Their relationship seems to start on their appreciation of booze, but as the plot thickens, you quickly understand that Kerouac doesn't have his shit together. That is, his drinking isn't under control.

Kerouac had the idea of taking all of his work, standardizing all of the names, and then publishing it as The Duluoz Legend. Or something like that. If you read The Dharma Bums in the context of that sprawling mess, it's the sad tale of a monk losing a soul.

The book is also about one man's relationship to the void and Christ, and Buddha, and Han Shan. . . Jack Kerouac: Between Nothingness and the Mystics. How he toes the line—living with the knowledge that ALL IS ILLUSION must be hard work for most, and Kerouac wasn't too likely an exception. How did he manage? (Barely.) How did he sustain relationships with his family? (Tenuously.) How did he fare in society? (Competently.) Did he form lasting friendships? (Occasionally.) Much luck with the ladies? (Possibly.) Did he turn to drink? (Assuredly.)

And Kerouac was certainly aware of his faults and part of the pleasure of reading him is that awareness' presence in the story. You could say he's writing from a religious perspective on the topic of a man admiring things from an aesthetic perspective. Sad as Kerouac's life played out, within the confines of The Dharma Bums, we're given a happy end. . . as that aesthetic man transforms into a religious man. At the end, his failings in the world are shed. Unfortunately, he accomplishes this feat by becoming a recluse.

I don't have any biographical material on Kerouac handy. I don't recall when, precisely, he wrote The Dharma Bums. Seems like he'd sat on On the Road for a considerable period of time, got it published, and then followed up with something he'd put together a bit more recently—The Dharma Bums. On the Road and The Dharma Bums are as different from one another as Visions of Cody is from Visions of Gerard.

This cover to The Dharma Bums is from a Signet Paperback from 1967. It is the third printing. The back cover reads:

"The book that turned on the hippies. . . THE DHARMA BUMS. . . Jack Kerouac's barrier-smashing novel about two rebels on a wild march for Experience from Frisco's swinging bars to the top of the snow-capped Sierras. . . Here are the orgiastic sexual sprees, the cool jazz bouts, the poetry Love-ins, and the marathon binges of the kids who are hooked on Sensation an looking for the high. . . THE DHARMA BUMS.”

I remember reading in McNally's biography that Kerouac had a difficult time handling his success as a writer throughout his entire career. And after he struggled for decades to gain some recognition, he was disgusted with the following he had once he finally acquired one. He spent his later years avoiding the media, losing entry-level professorships, drinking in his home town, and generally doing everything but writing.

Chances are pretty good that he saw this paperback cover, and he was no doubt repulsed by it.

A few months ago, someone pointed out to me that a great deal of the “action” in this novel takes place in Berkeley. Apparently, he lived in a small cottage behind a house on 1624 Milvia Street.

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[User Picture]
From:aum
Date:June 11th, 2007 04:35 pm (UTC)
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LJ is really taking it's time showing me your updates. I'm not sure what's the deal with that....

"The book that turned on the hippies. . . THE DHARMA BUMS. . . Jack Kerouac's barrier-smashing novel about two rebels on a wild march for Experience from Frisco's swinging bars to the top of the snow-capped Sierras. . . Here are the orgiastic sexual sprees, the cool jazz bouts, the poetry Love-ins, and the marathon binges of the kids who are hooked on Sensation an looking for the high. . . THE DHARMA BUMS.”

That blurb makes give me a little knot in my belly. If I remember right, Kerouac really disliked the fact that he was associated as a beatnik. If the cover above was the norm back then, I wouldn't blame him.

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