The Dharma Bums — First Impressions

Synchronicity – I think The Obvious? calls it. While searching the web for background on Gary Snyder for the poem I just posted on this site, I read that he was portrayed as Japhy, a central character in The Dharma Bums. Earlier, while buying a copy of Kerouacâs On the Road, I had picked up a copy of The Dharma Bums because the title intrigued me.

Obviously, I was meant to read this book now. So I did.

The book reminds me in some ways of Abbey’s Desert Solitaire because, for me, the best parts of the book are the scene where the narrator and Japhy climb Matterhorn in the Sierras and the last scene where the narrator spends the summer as a fire lookout on Mt. Desolation. Personally, I find Kerouac’s attempts to tie these events to his version of Buddhism the most interesting part of the book.

Of course, I also found the descriptions of Japhy, the main reason I read the novel, interesting. While it’s difficult to know how accurate these descriptions are, they do offer some insight into Snyderâs poetry. Also, Snyder writes in Mountains and Rivers without End, "By Way of Thanks: I thank the fellow writers who helped me shape this poem’s ideas from earliest on: Phillip Walen, Allen Ginsberg, Michael McClure, Jack Kerouac, and Lew Welch." Although this obviously doesn’t confirm the authenticity of Kerouac’s portrayal of him, it would at least seem to indicate that he wasn’t offended by his portrayal.

I am more ambivalent about the content of the novel and the characters who appear in it, particularly Ray Smith himself. Realizing this is "a slice of life" novel, without a real beginning or end, I still find it difficult to admire much about the narrator except his Huck-Finn-like search for his own personal freedom, a freedom you suspect he will sacrifice to his thirst for alcohol. At his worst, he reminds me of Holden Caufield in Catcher in the Rye , with his sense of personal superiority and constant whining about society in general, while at the same time failing to show any real superiority.

I need some more time to review my notes and think about the book, certainly more time than I have to devote to one day’s journal.

Here’s an enthusiastic review of the bookLitKicks: Dharma Bums if you’d like a different perspective.

Meanwhile, if you have strong feelings about the novel, let me know and I’ll try to consider them while thinking more about this novel.