Dharma Bums: 50th Anniversary Edition
Dharma Bums: 50th Anniversary Edition
by Jack Kerouac
Louis Menand wrote an excellent piece in the New Yorker last year about On the Road, reminding us of the huge loneliness and nostalgia in and around the book and the Beat movement. There’s sadness to spare, but when I opened Viking’s new 50th anniversary edition of Dharma Bums, I was surprised by all the joy in the prose, and how good life can feel in Kerouac’s descriptions:
I waded in the water and dunked a little and stood looking up at the splendorous night sky, Avalokitesvara’s ten-wondered universe of dark and diamonds. “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. All alone and free in the soft sands of the beach by the sigh of the sea out there … And if your cans are redhot and you can’t hold them in your hands, just use good old railroad gloves, that’s all. I let the food cool a little to enjoy more wine and my thoughts. I sat crosslegged in the sand and contemplated my life. Well, there, and what difference did it make? “What’s going to happen to me up ahead?”
Then the wine got to work on my taste buds and before long I had to pitch into those hotdogs, biting them right off the end of the stick spit, and chomp chomp, and dig down into the two tasty cans with the old pack spoon, spooning up rich bites of hot beans and pork, or of macaroni with sizzling hot sauce, and maybe a little sand thrown in. “And how many grains of sand are there on this beach?” I think. “Why, as many grains of sand as there are stars in that sky!” (chomp chomp) and if so “How many human beings have there been, in fact how many living creatures have there been, since before the less part of beginningless time?
First he’s hopping a train, then he’s cheering at an obscene poetry reading, “Fuck being a dirty word that comes out clean,” slugging a jug of wine, then on the way up a mountain, laughing Haiku, then shy at an orgy, then writing alone. A lot of us read this stuff as teenagers, and those of us who went looking for the life it described found just as much magic and dissipation as Jack said we would. The book reads true.
Kerouac’s style of spontaneous prose didn’t work for him most of the time, and wouldn’t work for most writers, but when he’s inspired (and armed with lots of notes and early drafts, as he often was), his exuberance becomes sweet-hearted eloquence, no less appealing for its clumsiness:
Then also as we went on climbing we began getting more casual and making funnier sillier talk and pretty soon we got to a bend in the trail where it was suddenly gladey and dark with shade and a tremendous cataracting stream was bashing and frothing over scummy rocks and tumbling on down, and over the stream was a perfect bridge formed by a fallen snag, we got on it and lay belly-down and dunked our heads down, hair wet, and drank deep as the water splashed in our faces, like sticking your head by the jet of a dam. I lay there a good long minute enjoying the sudden coolness.
“This is like an advertisement for Rainier Ale!” yelled Japhy.
“Let’s sit awhile and enjoy it.”
“Boy you don’t know how far we got to go yet!”
Dharma Bums is one the books where his style clicks best. Obviously, you should buy an old paperback and not an overpriced “anniversary” edition. Both of the British editions are sturdy, good-looking, and cheap through Abe Books.
John Cotter‘s novel Under the Small Lights was published by Miami University Press in 2010 and his short fiction is forthcoming from Redivider and New Genre. He’s a founding editor at Open Letters Monthly and lives in Denver, Colorado.