What one needs to know to get a feel for this book is neither a summation of events nor the description of some crisis that sets up those events; instead, one simply needs to know who dharma bums were. This may or may not be self-evident, despite the fact that it’s essentially what the two words crammed together suggests. Dharma Bums were members of the Beat Generation (i.e. Beatniks, the 1950’s predecessor counter-culture to the hippies) who followed (or were enamored by) Buddhism, and who eschewed a materialistic lifestyle—which is to say they worked only when they needed to in order to put bread on the table or when they found it [autotelicly] satisfying to do so.
The book is literary fiction and places more emphasis on character than plot, and–furthermore—the events of the book read as though loosely autobiographical. Therefore, the happenings of the book are as scattershot as real lives tend to be.
The book begins with Ray Smith (the fictional counterpart to the real Kerouac) hopping a freight car in the manner of Jack London’s “The Road” (not to be confused with Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road,” nor Kerouac’s own “On the Road”)
The book then spends time with a series of characters who map to real life members of the Beat Generation. The most important of these individuals (besides Smith / Kerouac) as far as the book is concerned is Japhy Ryder who represents the Zen poet Gary Snyder. Ryder is a mentor to Ray Smith. First, Ryder’s knowledge and practice of Buddhism is much more advanced than Smith’s—though they occasionally disagree because Ryder is a Zen Buddhist and Smith has an affinity for a more mainstream sect, Smith learns much about Buddhism and Eastern philosophy from Ryder. Second, Ryder is a mentor in sharing various life lessons with Smith, including introducing him to mountaineering. A short expedition up a mountain is among the most memorable parts of the book.
I’ll mention one other of the characters, Alvah Goldbook, who stands for Allen Ginsberg. Ginsberg may be the most famous of these individuals (other than Kerouac, himself) today, owing largely to his poem “Howl.” Ginsberg is more agnostic where Buddhism is concerned. He enjoys ideas from it but doesn’t jump in feet-first in the manner of Smith—let alone Ryder. There are a number of well-known beatniks who feature more or less prominently (e.g. Neal Cassady and Philip Whalen.)
The book’s end features Smith working alone as a fire lookout on another mountain—Kerouac readers later learned that this was the aptly named Desolation Peak. Japhy’s hand can be seen in this as well, as he recommended the job to Smith.
This is a book for the thinking-person. There is really only one dramatic event that stands out in my mind as the source of tension one normally seeks in a novel. The joy of the book comes from joining the characters in bouts of philosophizing, in the creative use of language, and in reflecting upon an approach to life that exists outside the conventional.
I’d recommend this book. Personally, I enjoyed it more, and found it more thought-provoking, than “On the Road,” which I suspect is the work for which Kerouac is more known and which is also a good read.