Book of the Week



From the streets of San Francisco and Berkeley on the calm, beachy West Coast to the pine forests of the rural East Coast, and all the way to the top of snowy Desolation Peak in the Sierras, these are some of the places that Jack Kerouac inhabits in his book, “The Dharma Bums.”

“The Dharma Bums” is one of the many novels in Kerouac’s series “The Duluoz Legend”. This is the story of his study of Buddhism and his appreciation of nature. Though he spends most of his time staying in small bungalows with other beat poets, he also goes on extensive mountain climbs with his “Bodhavissta”, or close friend, Japhy. They pass their time at home having energetic evenings full of wine drinking, poetic discussions, dancing, and the occasional orgy.

While out in the woods, they spend less time drinking wine and quaff fresh herbal teas instead. And instead of poetic conversation, they focus more on Buddhist and philosophical issues, in a poetic sense. From one another, they learn great things about themselves and the world around them. Jack’s character, Ray, gains a new appreciation for the world of nature. He begins to thrive on the energy of the mountains, the strange feeling when he knows he can’t fall off a ridge. It excites him.

But, he soon decides he must return to the rural forests of the East Coast where he grew up to see his family during the holidays. The trip across the country leaves Ray feeling depressed, filled with harsh memories of when the character was a vagrant train hopper in Kerouac’s other novel, “On the Road.” Once Ray reaches home, he does all he can to hold on to the way of life he had recently acquired by sleeping on the living room floor and spending most of his time sitting in a nearby forest, either meditating or writing silly haiku.

His stay with his family comes to a quickened end and he travels back to California to stay with a poet friend and his family. Ray stays in a small guest cabin on the top of a hill behind his friend’s house, somewhere in the South Bay. He fills his time with meditation and hiking with his old friend Japhy. Japhy tells Ray of his experiences as an outpost resident in the Sierras, and how he dreams of someday traveling to Japan and studying in the mountains with true “Bodhavisstas”, the Buddhist monks. As the day of Japhy’s departure approaches, Ray decides he wants to experience the secluded life atop Desolation Peak. The two part ways but never really acknowledge any sort of closure of their friendship.

Ray travels to the Sierras and is taken to his private cabin, his sole residence for the next six months to a year. He is then left alone to keep stewardship over this section of the mountain ranges. These months must have seemed like eternity to pass, but somehow Ray was able to occupy himself through meditation, small hikes, and the occasional cabin-cleaning. He also spends a lot of time writing poetry containing his personal thoughts and feelings on Buddhism, God, and the role of nature. It almost felt like a transcendence. The story comes to an end somewhere around there, but is left open for a conclusion to come later in the series.

“The Dharma Bums” is a beautifully written story with loving ideas on life. This is a great book to read while on a relaxing picnic in the woods, because the book is mightier than the box!