A lot of people, myself included, consider this Jack Kerouac's second best novel (after You-Know-What). Published in 1958 by Viking Press as the follow-up to that very successful book, The Dharma Bums is a gentler and more spiritual work about a group of writers on the cusp of literary fame and flying on a Buddhist kick, inspired by Zen lunatic Japhy Ryder, who is to 'Dharma Bums' what Dean Moriarty is to 'On The Road'.
Virtually all Kerouac's novels are about him and his friends, and 'Dharma Bums' is no exception. Japhy Ryder is Gary Snyder, Alvah Goldbook (who reads a poem called 'Wail') is Allen Ginsberg (author of Howl), and Neal Cassady makes a few brief appearances, not as Dean Moriarty but as Cody Pomeray. Kerouac himself is represented as Ray Smith. Furthermore, 'bow-tied wild-haired old anarchist fud' Rheinhold Cacoethes is Kenneth Rexroth, 'big fat bespectacled quiet booboo' Warren Coughlin is Philip Whalen ... I could go on and on, but let's just get to the book already.
It begins with Ray Smith bumming a ride to the San Francisco Bay Area on a freight train. He shares a boxcar with a hobo who shows him a slip of paper containing a prayer by Saint Teresa. This is the first of several Dharma Bums we will meet. (NOTE: 'Dharma' is one of the most important words in the Hindu and Buddhist religions. I hate to try to define this word, but it basically means 'your spiritual duty,' or 'your place in the universe.' A Dharma Bum is a bum because it is the right thing for him to be, because by being a bum he is fulfilling a spiritual duty greater than himself.)
Ray Smith arrives in Berkeley, California, where he lives with Alvah Goldbook and hangs out with Japhy Ryder. The three of them spend most of their time hanging around the house arguing over whose brand of Buddhism is most enlightened, and their conversations provide some of the funniest scenes in all Kerouac's books (well, okay, that's not saying much -- Kerouac is not a funny man). When Japhy Ryder brings a beautiful girl named Princess over for a clothes-optional session of 'yabyum,' Ray Smith is frozen in confusion, unable to reconcile his contemptible sexual desires with the spiritual consciousness Japhy Ryder is trying to introduce into his life.
The contrast between Ryder and Smith's approaches to spirituality is the main theme of the novel. Japhy Ryder is a cool-as-a-cucumber Zen Buddhist, calmly conducting tea-drinking ceremonies, inventing haikus and arranging sessions of yabyum with beautiful women. Ray Smith is a strict no-nonsense Theraveda Buddhist, viewing life as an all-or-nothing battle between lustfulness and purity. He hasn't had sex in a year, believing sexual desire to be an obstacle to enlightenment. The drastic nature of Smith's religous choice (I'd hyperlink to Kierkegaard here if I knew of a site to link to) means that his Buddhism is a constant source of internal strife, in contrast to Ryder's matter-of-fact, intuitive acceptance of Eastern ways. Ryder is living as a Buddhist, but Smith is 'wrestling with' Buddhism, and thus his experience with it is far more intense (and interesting) than Ryder's, even though Ryder is an 'expert' and Smith a novice.
Goldbook makes it a trinity of ideas: he views the ascetic Buddhist principles as an unnecessary intrusion into his fun life of sex, drugs, good food, warm beds and all the other things that make life worth living. He understands and respects the Buddhist religion, but is hoping to put off changing his life for it as long as possible. (This was, it turns out, Allen Ginsberg's initial reaction to the Buddhist 'trend' of this time. He would ater take the religion much more to heart.)
Japhy Ryder and Ray Smith go off to climb the Matterhorn, a tall and challenging mountain in the High Sierras. They bring a friend, Henry Morley (in real life, John Montgomery), who provides comic relief by doing everything wrong. The writing is wonderful here -- I don't do much reading on 'outdoorsy' subjects, but Kerouac's description of the mountain and the climbing process is bright, vivid and intensely personal. You can feel the howling wind as Smith clings to a depression in a rock only a hundred feet from the peak, terrified to take another step. When they're back down at the camp, you can just taste the bulgar wheat porridge with bacon, and (even better) the pancakes with maple syrup they find at a restaurant back in town.
The whole climb is symbolic, of course. That's why it's poignant and significant that Smith clings to a rock near the peak (clinging is a Buddhist metaphor for failing to give up your vain desires) while Ryder makes it to the top alone. Only moments later, Kerouac realizes 'It's impossible to fall off mountains you fool!'
A good scene from the book, Ryder and Smith camping out after a long day of climbing, is here.
Back in Berkeley after the idyllic outing, Smith plunges back into the city world of misery and maya (the Buddhist word for illusory distractions). Cody Pomeray (who plays a pointedly diminished role in this book, as if to emphasize the fact that Kerouac is now under the influence of the peaceful Gary Snyder, not the crazed Neal Cassady) asks Smith to look after a girlfriend who's been acting very weird. Smith tries to talk to her but they don't click together, and under his care she suddenly kills herself.
More distractions: Smith goes East to stay with his family. A rather conventional bunch, they depress him with their petty lives, and he expresses his feelings by camping out on the porch instead of sleeping inside in a bed. He gets in a fight with his brother-in-law, who forbids him to play with his dog anymore. (If this all seems like typical adolescent family-related angst, keep in mind that Ray Smith is in his mid-thirties at this point.)
The bummer continues: Smith returns to Berkeley, but he's sick of hitchhiking and hopping freight trains (see excerpt). He hooks up with Japhy Ryder, but Japhy seems depressed himself, and mumbles something about wanting to get married and make a lot of money. But Japhy and Smith manage to ride out this bummer, and after a while everything's swinging again. Japhy's going off to Japan, and Smith meets his charming family at a riotous farewell party.
The book ends with Smith following in Japhy's footsteps by traveling to the Cascade Mountain range in the Pacific Northwest to spend a season as a fire lookout. Japhy had told him stories about these mountains and the forest rangers he knew there, and Smith is thrilled to experience it all on his own. He is led by another Dharma Bum, Happy the Mule Skinner, up to the top of Desolation Peak, where he will live in a small cabin by himself. The last few pages are wonderfully descriptive and happy; Smith has found his own inner peace, at least for a while. We leave him in a state of ecstasy, falling to his knees to say a happy prayer of thanks for all the beautiful nature around him.