Jack Kerouac -- marching through Buddhism

September 07, 1997|By Merle Rubin | Merle Rubin,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

"some of the dharma," by Jack Kerouac. Viking. 416 pages. $29.95.

One of the most trenchant commentaries on the phenomenothat was Jack Kerouac was contained in an episode of "The Rockford Files." The long-suffering private investigator meets up with Jack Skowran, the seedy, once-celebrated author of a best-seller called "Free Fall to Ecstasy" that neither Rockford -- nor anyone else he interviews in the course of his investigation -- was Never able to get through.

If Jack Kerouac hadn't really existed, he would probably have been invented by whoever or whatever it is that manufactures cultural icons. With the publication of "On the Road" in 1957, he became the most famous member of the so-called "Beat Generation," a group that included such eminent drugged-out social dropouts as William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

Kerouac's thinly fictionalized account of his cross-country travels with bad boy Neal Cassady was written in just three weeks in 1951 on a single 120 foot-long sheet of paper. But this single-spaced outpouring of what Kerouac called "spontaneous prose" did not find a publisher until six years later.

One of the things Kerouac was doing in those six years was devoting himself to the study of Buddhism and keeping a notebook of his readings, thoughts, poems, letters and other reflections on the subject. He even informed his long-suffering literary agent that he now regarded his earlier writings as mere "Pre-enlightenment" work. His evolving book on the "dharma" was to be the main event, a selfless guide that would bring the higher truths of Buddhism to a nation mired in materialism and egoism.

"Dharma" is the Buddhist term for virtue or right action. Kerouac's notebook lists many of the Buddhist precepts about right behavior, right mental attitudes, meditation and stages of enlightenment. Readers interested in this information might do better to consult one of the many available textbooks on Buddhism. For the chief interest of this book -- notwithstanding its author's declarations that his sole aim was spreading Buddhist wisdom -- clearly resides in Kerouac's particular input and imprint on the material.

A rambling, amorphous collage with the occasional valuable insight or striking poetic image embedded in layers of Buddhist lore, "some of the dharma," not surprisingly, failed to find a publisher in the years before Kerouac's sudden rise to celebrity. What is somewhat surprising, given his fame, is that it did not find a publisher until 28 years after his death in 1969, at age 47, of an abdominal hemorrhage.

Sadly and ironically, the book contains many entries in which Kerouac observes that the "highs" of Buddhist meditation far excel the unhealthy "highs" induced by the drugs he continually but vainly resolved to give up.

For those who are fascinated by Kerouac and have the patience to page through it, this book has some of the same spontaneity and naive enthusiasm that imbued "On the Road" (also being issued by Viking in a special 40th anniversary edition). Those who never made it past the first few pages of his other books, however, are not likely to relish burrowing into this one.

Merle Rubin writes for the Christian Science Monitor, the Wall Street Journal and the Los Angeles Times, among others. She has a doctorate in English from the University of Virginia.

Pub Date: 9/07/97

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