The pivotal character in The Dharma Bums is really the narrator, Ray Smith, Kerouac’s alter ego. Unlike the idealized Japhy Rider, the narrator is all too human, as we learn early in the story:
I reminded myself of the line in the Diamond Sutra that says, Practice charity without holding in mind any conceptions about charity, for charity after all is just a word." I was very devout in those days and was practicing my religious devotions almost to perfection. Since then I’ve become a little hypocritical about my lip-service and a little tired and cynical. Because now I am grown so old and neutral. . . . But then I really believed in the reality of- charity and kindness and humility and zeal and neutral tranquillity and wisdom and ecstasy, and I believed that I was an oldtime bhikku in modern clothes wandering the world (usually the immense triangular are of New York to Mexico City to San Francisco) in order to turn the wheel of the True Meaning, or Dharma, and gain merit for myself as a future Buddha (Awakener) and as a future Hero in Paradise.
Kerouac may have chosen the name Smith for the narrator precisely because he represents the common man, a "religious wanderer." Smith, like most of us, starts out with the best of intentions.
Smith’s inability to meet his expectations are shown early in the novel. When Smith is following Japhy up the Matterhorn, an obvious symbol of his spiritual climb, we see Smith at his best:
I thought, "What a strange thing is man . . . like in the Bible it says, Who knoweth the spirit of man that looketh upward? This poor kid ten years younger than I am is making me look like a fool forgetting all the ideals and joys I knew before, in my recent years of drinking and disappointment, what does he care if he hasn’t got any money: he doesn’t need any money, all he needs is his rucksack with those little plastic bags of dried food and a good pair of shoes and off he goes and enjoys the privileges of a millionaire in surroundings like this. And what gouty millionaire could get up this rock anyhow? It took us all day to climb." And I promised myself that I would begin a new life. "All over the West, and the mountains in the East, and the desert, I’ll tramp with a rucksack and make it the pure way."
Some of us can’t help but admire Smith’s desire to live "the pure way." Unfortunately, Smith is unable to keep up with Japhy and reach the top, perhaps not too surprising considering that he has never climbed a mountain before. Instead of seeing this as a challenge he needs to prepare better for, he just seems to give up.
"Now there’s the karma of these three men, here: Japhy Ryder gets to his triumphant mountaintop and makes it, I almost make it and have to give up and huddle in a bloody cave, but the smartest of them all is that poet’s poet lyin down there with his knees crossed to the sky chewing on a flower dreaming by a gurgling plage, goddammit they’ll never get me up here again."
Throughout the novel Smith certainly is shown as the protagonist, not as a hero. His travails follow the common-man-as-victim theme which dominates so much of modern fiction.
Raised in North Carolina, Smith seems to hold the traditional, conservative American values that have perhaps served those well who have been willing to settle down, marry the girl next door, and spend their lives earning a living for their family.
At his best, in fact, Smith even seems more compassionate than the enlightened Japhy. His Christian background seems reflected in the compassion he feels for nearly everyone he meets:
At nine o’clock I was stomping with full pack across my mother’s yard and there she was at the white tiled sink in the kitchen, washing her dishes, with a rueful expression waiting for me (I was late), worried I’d never even make it and probably thinking, "Poor Raymond, why does he always have to hitchhike and worry me to death, why isn’t he like other men?" And I thought of Japhy as I stood there in the cold yard looking at her: "Why is he so mad about white tiled sinks and ‘kitchen machinery’ he calls it? People have good hearts whether or not they live like Dharma Bums. Compassion is the heart of Buddhism."
Although Smith may seek the ultimate freedom that comes from being on the road and meditating instead of working, he is unable to entirely escape the guilt caused by the work ethic that he has been raised with:
I wasn’t exactly unconscious of the fact that I had a good warm fire to return to after these midnight meditations, provided kindly for me by my brother-in-law, who was getting a little sick and tired of my hanging around not working. Once I told him a line from something, about how one grows through suffering, he said: "If you grow through suffering by this time I oughta be as big as the side of the house."
Having been raised with a strong work ethic, it must have been nearly impossible not to feel guilty about living off others.
Smith’s sexual mores also come in direct conflict with the life style he encounters in California. Although he obviously envies Japhy Rider’s sexual freedom and sexual exhibitions, he is unable to participate himself without a tremendous sense of guilt.
"Take your clothes off and join in, Smith!" But on top of all that, the feelings about Princess, I’d also gone through an entire year of celibacy based on my feeling that lust was the direct cause of birth which was the direct cause of suffering and death and I had really no lie come to a point where I regarded lust as offensive and even cruel.
"Pretty girls make graves," was my saying, whenever I’d had to turn my head around involuntarily to stare at the incomparable pretties of Indian Mexico. And the absence of active lust in me had also given me a new peaceful life that I was enjoying a great deal. But this was too much. I was still afraid to take my clothes off; also I never liked to do that in front of more than one person, especially with men around.
He seems unable to comprehend that no matter how much you may seem to want something, it is self-destructive to do something you know is wrong before you do it. Either change your head, or change your actions. It may well be, as some existentialists argue, that nothing is right or wrong, but thinking makes it so. At the very least, if you THINK it is wrong to have sex with every girl you meet, it IS wrong. Duh. How could an enlightened man think otherwise?
At the deepest level, Smith only seems able to confront the Great Void:
I meditated and prayed. There just isn’t any kind of night’s sleep in the world that can compare with the night’s sleep you get in the desert winter night, providing you’re good and warm in a duck-down bag. The silence is so intense that you can hear your own blood roar in your ears but louder than that by far is the mysterious roar which I always identify with the roaring of the diamond of wisdom, the mysterious roar of silence itself, which is a great Shhhh reminding you of something you’ve seemed to have forgotten in the stress of your days since birth. I wished I could explain it to those I loved, to my mother, to Japhy, but there just weren’t any words to describe the nothingness and purity of it. "Is there a certain and definite teaching to be given to all living creatures?" was the question probably asked to beetlebrowed snowy Dipankara, and his answer was the roaring silence of the diamond.
Confronting the Void may well be an important step toward enlightenment, the equivalent of the Dark Night of the Soul, but few are able to survive the constant awareness of that Void without finding something to bridge it.
Unfortunately, the only thing Smith seems able to find to help fill that Void is alcohol. As Japhy tells him:
"You’re just drinking too much all the time, I don’t see how you’re even going to gain enlightenment and manage to stay out in the mountains, you’ll always be coming down the hill spending your bean money on wine and finally you’ll end up lying in the street in the rain, dead drunk, and then they’ll take you away and you’ll have to be reborn a teetotalin bartender to atone for your karma." He was really sad about it, and worried about me, but I just went on drinking.
Personally, I find it difficult to get enthusiastic for a novel where the protagonist’s solution to his problems is to drink himself into oblivion. I know that real life can be this depressing, but I refuse to believe it has to be. If we can’t be Japhy, at least we can be the best Smith we can be, and that is all we need to be.
Even Kerouac seems to realize this and tries to end the novel on a happier note:
It was Japhy who had advised me to come here and now though he was seven thousand miles away in Japan answering the meditation bell (a little bell he later sent to my mother in the mail, just because she was my mother, a gift to please her) he seemed to be standing on Desolation Peak by the gnarled old rocky trees certifying and justifying all that was here. "Japhy," I said out loud, "I don’t know when we’ll meet again or what’ll happen in the future, but Desolation, Desolation, I owe so much to Desolation, thank you forever for guiding me to the place where I learned all. Now comes the sadness of coming back to cities and I’ve grown two months older and there’s all that humanity of bars and burlesque shows and gritty love, all upsidedown in the void God bless them, but Japhy you and me forever we know, 0 ever youthful, 0 ever weeping." Down on the lake rosy reflections of celestial vapor appeared, and I said "God, I love you" and looked up to the sky and really meant it. "I have fallen in love with you, God. Take care of us all, one way or the other."
Unfortunately, the ironic title Desolation Peak doesn’t seem ironic here. This escape from despair seems at best temporary, though, for Smith, like all of us, has to test what he has learned on the mountain with the cold reality of everyday life.
Remember to balance these observations against my earlier post on Japhy. I’m still ambivalent about the novel, but I’m glad I finally took the time to read it. If you think I’m being too tough on Kerouac, see the review of another of his books here: Amazon.com: buying info: Some of the Dharma.