Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Book Review: The Dharma Bums

Jack Kerouac's The Dharma Bums is one of those works that you know you're supposed to like but don't really know why, like Citizen Kane or The Sound and the Fury. It's a book-writer's book, full of descriptive detail and pseudo-autobiographical introspection only instead of Ethan Frome running his sled into a tree we have Ray Smith mumbling about Buddhism, train-hopping around the west and taking part in drunken, albeit surprisingly non-erotic, orgies.

Kerouac is, of course, one of the fathers of the Beat Poet Generation. I like Beat Poetry (like Buddy Wakefield and Anis Mojgani) but I don't love it so I read this book out of some sense of artistic responsibility and was hardly rewarded for the effort. I found myself counting the pages until it would end.

Don't get me wrong, I do not doubt that this is a fine piece of literature. But in the same way that I admire the craft while struggling to enjoy Ballet and most Poetry, this book missed the mark for me. I prefer my classics to still drive a story while commenting on the human condition (a la East of Eden).

Forgive me, this sounds less like a review and more like me name-dropping how Hip I am. DB tells the story of Ray Smith (who is really Jack Kerouac) being introduced to Buddhism and coming to appreciate the beauty and solitude of nature after being introduced to mountaineering by his friend Japhy Ryder (also a stand in for someone real, use wikipedia because it means nothing to me). In between trips to the wild Smith and Ryder meander around San Francisco hosting parties where someone inevitable ends up naked as part of some adherence to natural being until ultimately Smith heads out solo for a season-long isolation at the top of the mountain where he gains some form of transcendence. That's not a spoiler, because "plot" is a an elusive mistress with this book.

I'm sure if I was more poetic or in touch with my emotions DB's language would have moved something in my soul. It's the kind of book that makes you think you're a bad writer because you can't write about nothing for 100 pages and still sound pretty. The kind of book that I imagine rich people and hipster college students stack on bookshelves and quote at random instances to look cultured and dignified. As for me, I was just plain bored. C+

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