The Dharma Bums.
by Jack Kerouac.
Viking. 244 pp. $3.95.
Not, to my recollection, since the good ship “Lollipop” let fall its praline anchor into the fondant waters of Peppermint Bay has such a cargo of sentimentality been delivered to the waiting world. To judge by his fourth novel, Jack Kerouac has at last managed to find the mountain of solid molasses which was thought to exist somewhere between Hollywood and San Francisco and which not even the combined talents of Heidi, Pollyanna, John Steinbeck, and William Saroyan had been able to locate. And without instruments—his only Geiger counter his heart. I should add that Kerouac has also had the wit to call his molasses mountain “Buddhism.”
The “dharma” of the novel’s title refers to Buddhist absolute truth or reality, and the “bums” to the early Chinese mendicant philosophers and their contemporary incarnations—the narrator of this novel, Ray Smith (equals Hooray America?), his pal, Japhy Ryder, and their circle of “simple poet bums.” They hope, by avoiding the values and uses of middle-class, industrial society, to arrive at dharma; there is also some talk about their setting out as “rucksack wanderers” to proselytize America. And the novel is ostensibly concerned with their visions, meditations, and wanderings, all of which are carried out in the midst of a snug asceticism comfortably padded with Ry-Krisp (“concentrated bread”), salami (“concentrated meat”), peanuts, raisins, rucksacks, straw mats, tea, “gay pots of coffee,” “a merry little lodge,” nylon ponchos, downy sleeping bags, etc.
All this is treated by Kerouac with an incredible assumed innocence. Japhy Ryder, for example, is the victim of a panegyric equal to anything the greatest hack has yet produced for the greatest hero. One instance will do for the book’s several hundred—and will also serve to illustrate Kerouac’s schoolboy poster style, witlessly mixed diction, inept use of dialogue for exposition, and unctuous sentimentality:
A peacefuller scene I never saw than when, in that rather nippy late red afternoon, I simply opened his little door and looked in and saw him at the end of the little shack, sitting crosslegged on a Paisley pillow on a straw mat, with his spectacles on, making him look old and scholarly and wise, with book on lap and the little tin teapot and porcelain cup steaming at his side. He looked up very peacefully, saw who it was, said, ‘Ray, come in,’ and bent his eyes again to the script.
‘What you doing?’
‘Translating Han Shan’s great poem called “Cold Mountain” written a thousand years ago some of it scribbled on the sides of cliffs hundreds of miles away from any other living things.’
The Japhy who emerges from this vaseline bath is one of the less attractive characters in recent fiction. He is quite pompous and a little cruel, his Buddhism seems merely a part of a more general artsy-craftsy Orientalism, and he pursues final wisdom with all the self-righteous, nut-bellied ambition of an old-fashioned Calvinist businessman. Not, indeed, that he is dull to the grosser forms of vanity; his picture of himself is unforgettable: “. . . and I was on Crater Mountain in my jockstrap and boots hunting out ptarmigan nests out of curiosity, climbing and poking about, gettin bit by bees.” Ray (that is, Jack himself) is a looser-grained character. Euphoric and footloose, he tags along after the “serious and leaderly” Japhy diddling out tacky little spontaneous poems, complaining of his and the world’s unspecified (and unfelt) sufferings, and cooing over everything under the sun. He shares with Japhy a practiced charity that would choke even a starving elephant and a hypertrophied self-consciousness equaled, to my knowledge, only by Walt Whitman:
‘Well, Ray,’ sez I, glad, ‘only a few miles to go. You’ve done it again.’ Happy. Just in my swim shorts, barefooted, wild-haired, in the red fire dark, singing, swigging wine, spitting, jumping, running—that’s the way to live.
Ray’s ability to see himself “wild-haired” gives some inkling of what lies below the assumed innocence and the hero worship. What I see there is a more radical and unpleasant void than Kerouac perhaps suspects in his meditations on Buddhist apathy and a more serious obstacle to the vision of universal unity than the refractory ego about which he occasionally worries. For though Kerouac is continually at pains to assure the reader that such and such a thing “actually happened” or is “actual” or “real,” I am only assured that he is persecuted by a lively sense of unreality, by a feeling that all this is merely play-acting and that when the clock strikes twelve all the boys will find themselves safe back in bed or in their mothers’ kitchens or, quite simply, successful on Madison Avenue or in Central Asia. When there is mountain climbing to be done, Ray and his pals form “a strange outlandish group”; they are “like two true mountain climbers” or “like straggling infantrymen”; and Ray says, “Goldangit,” and Japhy says, with what can only be a child’s false baritone, “Let’s go men. . . .” And always they are “like shroudy monks.” Of course, there are also the inevitable and ubiquitous witnesses, who constitute the razor’s edge between the desire to shock and the fear of shocking and who certify the reality of whatever Ray is doing: the gaping old men, the giggling schoolchildren, and the disappointing ones “who didn’t even look at us.” In a pinch, Ray will go it alone, asking of himself, “What did people think?” To all this may be added Ray’s assumed innocence, which, I take it, is intended as a sort of imitative magic.
It is precisely this void of the make-believe, of life by analogy, which constitutes the simpleminded revolt to which the San Francisco writers have given tongue and trumpet: a lesser nihilism which, lacking all commitment to the world, can no more imagine the world’s destruction than it can its existence, and must shuttle between non-conformity’s empty rejections and conformity’s empty affirmations. Perhaps the only genuine and touching notes to be found in this book are Ray’s double wish to rebel and still be accepted, and his refusal to recognize this, his desire to believe that because he is walking backward he is not going home.
Here enters the molasses—to fill this void with its euphoria, affirmations, pathos. Apathy is jazzed up till it glows in the dark like true vision—“the nowhere industrial formations of an America that is still magic America.” That the poor may be good or interested in “culture,” that the dharma bums are unappreciated or misunderstood, that “doleful bowlfuls” of soup taste better “than in some vast tureen,” this is what Kerouac finds surprising, pitiful, moving. Buddha, apparently, is invoked simply to guarantee this molasses is non-fattening, for nothing could be farther removed from the fluid monistic universe of Oriental philosophy than this soap-opera of “togetherness.”
There are good bits of nature description here and there in The Dharma Bums and Kerouac’s pace is quick enough to develop an inane liveliness, reminiscent of a person jiggling his knee to some unheard music; we might call it “cool” dithyramb. It is hardly suited to the novel for it tends to monologue. Rather, like our unconscious knee-jiggler, it seeks to slur over anything disruptively sharp, radical, or fragmentary in order to maintain the given rhythm. And this rhythm itself I hear as a childish, inner little hum that corresponds to the narcissistic sensuality which Seems to be Kerouac’s main preoccupation.
It appears that The Dharma Bums has reassured our middle-brow critics and other guardians of public morality that the semi-revolt of our semi-literate youth, the Paperback Generation, is coming to a rapid end. The sheep has here doffed his wolf’s clothing. Indeed, there seems to be evidence that in his next incarnation he is to be a watchdog—“In fact if a thief should have broken [into Japhy’s shack] the only things of real value were the books.” To which system of cultural assessment, I can only say, Wow!