There’s one hit wonders that really only have one hit. Then there’s hits that cause collateral damage – the force of the hit lifts some of their other work into pseudo-hit status as well. After The Knack scored a hit with “My Sharona” they had one or two other singles limp along to the backwaters of the charts. Nobody was fooled. They were a one hit band.
On the Road, a confusing novel that captured a cultural era, was Jack Kerouac’s hit. If you’ve read any of his other works, you have that novel to thank. The Dharma Bums comes across as a sappy, maudlin coda to that book – where he shows that he’s not just a crazy hellraiser, he’s also sensitive and spiritual.
Or…something. Beat Generation books are notoriously difficult to analyse, because it’s a movement that prizes nebulous emotions and epiphanies instead of actual ideas and content. Want to be “Beat”? Feel vague inklings of belief that never coalesce into a creed. Experience vague feelings of dissatisfaction that never ferment rebellion. Play “The Times They Are a-Changing” on repeat, learn to play the sitar badly, and study the Noble Eightfold Path while pounding THC into your system. Congratulations. You are now “Beating Off.”
The Beat Generation could never make a positive or negative case about anything. There’s the feeling that applying sanity and epistemology destroys the magic of the thing. This is certainly a valid way to feel, especially when you’re young, but it’s difficult to translate that feeling into a book. When you refuse to clarify or firm up anything beyond a laconic “soak in the vibes, man!”, you often end up with a book about nothing.
The Dharma Bums almost but doesn’t fall into that category. It’s a short book about nothing.
This feels like it was written for children. It’s a series of simple, unexamined actions, blaring like a note on a cheap Casio keyboard. We’re climbing a mountain! We’re riding a car! These mundane activities are described in paroxysms of joy and religious ecstasy.
And the food. There’s so many descriptions of them eating that it’s like Brian Jacques’ infamous Redwall books – again, books for children. Have you ever noticed that food fulfills the role in children’s books that sex fulfills in adult books? If the luxurious descriptions of food in the Dharma Bums were sex acts, this might be the most censored book in American history.
There’s exactly one moment – the suicide of a fragile female character, I believe – where it seems like Kerouac’s getting ready to do something. I was still waiting for this something when I turned the last page of the Dharma Bums. Ultimately, you’re left with a book that seems to satirize the delirious, masturbatory emptiness of the Beat experience – except it doesn’t seem to have been written as a satire.
On the Road wasn’t a great book it was better than this: a mild-mannered ramble through mid-50s Americana that not only pulls out the Beat Era’s fangs, but pulls out every other tooth as well. The Dharma Bums is so soft and repetitive that it’s like being gummed to death. The Dharma Gums.