Since my teenage years in the 1970’s, Jack Kerouac has been an author whose work has meant a lot to me. While I’m glad that On The Road brought him fame and continues to bring him new readers, it was never a favorite of mine as I preferred his more structurally innovative works such as Tristessa, Visions of Cody, The Subterraneans, Desolation Angels, and posthumous works such as Some Of The Dharma (confession: I have not read the “teletype scroll” version of On The Road—-that may well be quite different from the one we all know). Although I am a poet and not a fiction writer, Kerouac’s work has had a great impact on me…beginning in my youth when I carried around a copy of Tristessa in my back pocket. After all, I have written THREE poetry chapbooks inspired by Satori In Paris (one, SATORI IN LAKE CHARLES, has been published—-the other two should be out within the next year). Presently, I am re-reading Desolation Angels, and within the first ten pages, I had a flash of insight: closely observed details of the immediate environment, juxtaposed with images and situation from memory but retold with a bit of license and some of the details changed, juxtaposed with spiritual musings, held together with stream-of-consciousness flow….hey, that’s EXACTLY what I’m doing with many of my poems!
Also, one of the great values of Kerouac’s work for future generations is the unflinching candor of the narrative persona. Kerouac’s persona in many of his works reflects many of the less-than-desirable qualities and biases of 20th century American males. I’m not sure whether the author viewed his narrator in that manner, and Mr. Kerouac might well consider that a revisionist take on his work, but it’s an inevitable outgrowth of his emphasis on candor and on unpacking the different levels of the self on the page (in other words, there is a strong mid-20th century male chauvinist vibe to much of Kerouac’s work which could be off-putting to readers, especially female readers….best to ascribe those qualities to the narrative persona, analyze them, understand the views of that time better, and not use them as an excuse to ignore the other 95% of the work which is of much value).
Let’s move on, though, to the subject at hand in this post, Kerouac’s posthumously published WAKE UP: A LIFE OF THE BUDDHA. Kerouac spent a good chunk of time on this book and consulted many works to write it. He had the enthusiasm of a convert and no doubt worried about getting the details right. The superb introduction to the book by Prof. Robert A. F. Thurman perceptively observes that Kerouac tended to favor (and consult works from) the Mahayana branch of Buddhism (my own studies have been in that area, along with Chan Buddhism and Tibetan Buddhism), and for someone not brought up in a Buddhist-dominant culture and who was not a comparative religion major and who did not have access to the internet, Kerouac should be lauded for producing an excellent lay-person’s guide to the life of Prince Siddhartha Gautama and the tenets of that view of the universe and of consciousness.
I first read the book soon after its publication, and initially I found it somewhat disappointing. I’m not sure I finished it, even. Clearly, it had been cobbled together from sources, something which Kerouac did not deny, so in a sense it was the Jack Kerouac paraphrase of this material. However, in the true “erase the ego” spirit, little of Kerouac’s individual character is left. Of course, that was not the function of this work–it was meant to be a factual study and a text meant to convert–so I perhaps should not attack it for not being what it did not set out to be.
I re-read the book a few years later, and DID finish it that time around. My main impression of the book at that time was that while it was a solid and interesting piece of work, it had the humorless over-sincerity of works by converts…..think Bob Dylan’s first-two “born again” albums. Or better yet, track down some of the audience recordings of live shows from Bob Dylan’s born-again live shows where he interacts with the audience. Kerouac and Dylan are both men of great wit and sarcasm and especially of grounding their work in the particulars of life as it is lived. When Dylan is composing songs dealing with religious generalities in a doctrinaire fashion, he is not doing what he is best at, what he is valued for. The same goes for Jack Kerouac.
Wake Up: A Life of the Buddha should convince anyone out there who still considers Kerouac an undisciplined writer (there are probably still a few) that he was a craftsman of great self-discipline. In fact, Wake Up often comes off like a commissioned project which was completed in a thoroughly professional manner.
A few weeks ago I finished reading the book for a third time as well as listening to the audio book. I don’t think I will be re-visiting the work again, unless I need to for research purposes. Again, it’s a solid and professional lay-person’s guide to the basics of the story of the Buddha. However, to be honest, this could have been written by any number of people. Yes, I do understand that to honor the material, Kerouac did want to erase the hand of the author, and that he did well, but it lacks the edginess, the groping for answers, and most especially, the grounding of spiritual ideas in lived experience. That is done far better in THE DHARMA BUMS or DESOLATION ANGELS. If you want Kerouac’s improvisations on many of the ideas in this book, done up in a playful and stylistically innovative manner, try the amazing SOME OF THE DHARMA, which is pure Kerouac, while dealing with many of the issues in this book in a weighty manner. Those books, and others, are what make Kerouac a great spiritual author. Kerouac was also a man who sought to unify faiths, insisting that there was common ground between Buddhism and Roman Catholicism. He was NOT a doctrinaire man. Wake Up presents a doctrinaire perspective in the dry and overly respectful manner of a recent convert. Kerouac the artist appreciated ambiguity. This book represents a period in his life when he sought to be a doctrinaire member of a particular faith. It’s interesting as a cul-de-sac in his life and career, but there’s little here that anyone who knows Buddhism 101 is not already familiar with.
An innovative, open-ended literary work such as SOME OF THE DHARMA provides a lifetime’s worth of reading and material to chew on. A novel such as DESOLATION ANGELS shows Kerouac doing what he did best….integrating lived experience and rich detail with spiritual groping. I can return to it every few years and find new insight in it…and also enjoy the rich details of the journey and the flow of the voice. And THE DHARMA BUMS presents the same Buddhist agenda as Wake Up but does it in a much more human and contemporary (and artful) method….a method which, ironically, will result in many more people being brought into the Buddhist fold, if that was indeed Kerouac’s intent.
Those of us for whom religious traditions are mostly of value for the metaphors they provide or for their cultural significance will find little of permanent value and little that is distinctly Kerouac in Wake Up: A Life of the Buddha. It’s great to have it finally in print, and it fills an important gap in the man’s life and writing career, but I won’t be keeping it close at hand as I do SOME OF THE DHARMA and DESOLATION ANGELS, and I won’t be mentioning it the next time I am explaining Kerouac’s significance and value.