Despite flashes of undeniable genius, there’s an overwhelming feeling that Jack Kerouac lacked a truly brilliant editor at his side for his entire career. Books such as Desolation Angels and Satori in Paris are shot through with ‘spontaneous prose’ that could have been even more affecting if it had been given a much-needed tidy up
This is one of the reasons The Dharma Bums is my favourite of Kerouac’s novels. Passages appear to have been pored over rather than hammered out and handed straight to the publisher. The description of main character Ray Smith’s (one of Kerouac’s many nom de guerre’s) trek to the High Sierras with fellow writer and devout Buddhist Japhy Ryder is perhaps his finest work. In a stunning series of chapters, Kerouac leaves the world of so-called ‘spontaneous bop prosedy’ behind, his writing driven by glorious, tight descriptions of mountain climbing and brilliant, beuatifully conceived characterisation.
But it’s not just about this early section of the novel. Kerouac’s evocation of a ‘rucksack revolution’ might seem childlike to older minds, but this was truly powerful stuff when I first picked up a copy at the age of 17. Reading it back now it’s hard not to find some of this (cod) spirituality cringeworthy, but it’s one of the few books that I’ve thumbed to near destruction. There are certain parts, especially the closing chapters tracing Kerouac’s decision to become a summer fire warden in the North West US, that still evoke within me a sense of adventure and longing.
I think The Dharma Bums’ greatest achievement is the way in which Kerouac balances his own aspirations with his extreme fragility. There’s no denying that as a man he was deeply conflicted. His latter political musings fly in the face of his apparent left-wing drifting philosophy, while the alcoholism which eventually killed him belied a man obsessed with his inner wellbeing. In no other book does Kerouac manage to feel at peace with both sides of his personality. That to me is why this is a book I will always return to, no matter how old I am.