I’ve had this book on my shelf for years, bought probably eight or nine years ago in one of the second-hand bookshops. I think it must have been the £1 one because there’s no price penciled in the book. Given my black heart and lack of patience for overly involved self-exploration, you could ask why I bought it? Out of curiosity. On The Road would be my first choice, but in a second-hand bookshop you don’t get to choose what’s available, so I took this as a second best.
I read it over Easter, the weather was beautiful and since we were all homebound I was pretending my balcony is not clearly visible to all my neighbors and spend the weekend suntanning and reading. What can I say, I was not over the moon with it.
One good thing is how the book was honest about the characters’ hypocrisy. All nature-oriented, Buddhist and ascetic when there is no temptation only to fall into every single trap offered by the city life as soon as it’s in sight.
We have here Ray, who travels to California on the freight trains. Thinking himself a Dharma Bum, in search of enlightenment, away from the grind of everyday middle-class life. In San Francisco, he meets Japhy, another Dharma Bum. Together they spend many a night drinking and discussing such high brow topics as Buddhism, poetry, and the overall pathetic state of the world matters.
Japhy convinces Ray to go mountain climbing with him. Together they try to climb Matterhorn in the Sierra Nevada. It is actually quite funny because for Japhy it is this highly spiritual pursuit. But the first thing they do on the way is to hit a bar. Then they dutifully climb and experience their enlightenment within nature, but as soon as they are down they hit a restaurant for dinner and a diner for breakfast. So much for the ascetic life.
Another thing that made me laugh was that they took bulgur wheat with them, as a sort of special mountain staple. As hipster then as now. Not that I don’t like it, but it is one of many grains out there.
Then after a crazy summer in California, Ray hitchhikes his way back home to North Carolina for Christmas with his family. Where he spends the next four or five months doing absolutely nothing but meditating in the forest. Which, unsurprisingly drives his brother-in-law up the wall. Ray returns to California for the spring and then, advised by Japhy, gets a job as a fire lookout on the Desolation Peak for the summer.
Predictably the spring is an endless roll of parties, drinking, meditating, and sleeping. With only the minimal amount of work thrown in. At the end of it, before Japhy leaves for Japan, they do one last trek to Mount Tamalpais in Maris County. Again they love the ascetic life and communion with nature. After that their roads split. We follow Ray to Desolation Peak and endure a quite difficult summer with him there.
So why I didn’t like this book? Because it’s full of BS. I’m sorry, I am just too old for this…I’ve learned over and over that living outside the society is not for me. That abandoning my worldly possessions in search of higher understanding is not for me. That really it rarely is for anyone, because then we’d all be saints. So what annoyed me was their judgment and their constant high moral stance. What really cracked me up was how they measured against reality, oh, I had so much fun with this! And what made me sad was that they never realized how full of it they are.
But maybe I’m just not forgiving enough, maybe it is ok to strive for such an ideal and fail. Only in that case who gives you the right to go around and judge everyone who does not follow your path? Because that’s another thing the boys were happily doing. And let’s not forget to mention that this book by today’s standards is sexist (women literally exist only as willing sex toys) and racist.
As you can see I am personally annoyed by this book, which may have been the point. In that case, well done! But I don’t think I will go out of my way to read more of Kerouac’s books.
If you’d like to read a good book about communion with nature and searching for the real self I think Into the Wild is a better choice.
Have you read any? Did you like them? Am I taking this too personally? 😉
PS. A few weeks later I read Wanderlust. The History of Walking by Rebecca Solnit (review coming soon) and found out something that may be obvious for you but was a bit of a surprise for me. Japhy is a real person, one Gary Snyder a poet affiliated with the Beats. He indeed took Kerouac up the Tamalpais and spent time in Japan pursuing Zen Buddhism. Solnit also mentions Shugendō and Hanshan (‘Cold Mountain’), that Kerouac learned about from Snyder.