Dad gave me a copy of On the Road for Christmas when I was sixteen. At thirteen, it had been The Great Gatsby and The Grapes of Wrath, then The Catcher in the Rye the year after that. In our house, there was a wall of impressive hardcover books in the den, all the important works of the twentieth century displayed with the curated cool of a record collection: giant tomes like Freedom at Midnight and The Executioner’s Song, great novels like Portnoy’s Complaint and Gravity’s Rainbow and The Naked and the Dead, with glossy white jackets, seventies fonts, and enormous black-and-white photos of authors on the back covers. I was going to work my way through that wall someday, I thought.
By my senior year of high school, I was ready for the Beats. I read The Dharma Bums, Jack Kerouac’s wild romp through American Zen Buddhism, and the great headlong rush of voice swept me along in its current; I read without coming up for air. What drew me in particular was the flirtation with the spiritual. I was a reader endlessly fascinated by how writers used the symbologies and stories of religion to ask existential questions and demand answers of their gods. I was bored by the whiny angst of The Catcher in the Rye, but I read the more spiritual Franny and Zooey over and over, carrying it in my book bag like some sort of talisman. I couldn’t get enough of Frank Herbert’s philosophical, messianic Dune. But with The Dharma Bums, I fell in a new, complicated sort of love.
Whenever I encountered a story about religious quests, I went through the same arc of raised hopes and crushing disappointment. In Bums, Ray Smith encounters the Buddhist poet and adventurer Japhy Ryder, a close simulacrum of the real-life Zen scholar and poet Gary Snyder. Ray, an alcoholic, semihomeless wanderer, finds purpose in Ryder’s exhilarating, whirlwind leap through centuries of Zen mystical tradition. They climb the Matterhorn, get drunk, compose poetry, throw wild San Franciscan parties, and eventually part regretfully; Ray Smith still wants to be a lost boy of America, riding the rails, while Ryder is moving to Japan to study his religion in a more serious and authentic way. Read More