Top critical review
Zen Man On a Mountain
on December 5, 2003
Westerners tend to have under-adjusted encounters with Buddhism, because they are usually attached to the 'idea' of their being detached-- a fallacy because Buddhism asserts the 'end of self' altogether. Thus, it is difficult to write about Buddhism in a western context, especially in a first person narrative, which is what Kerouac rather successfully has done. Kerouac is self-aware of this dynamic and creates two characters (Ray and Japhy) who start off traveling together, but become more adverse as their philosophies clash. Japhy becomes deeply attached, almost smug, to his spiritual evolution, while the more modest Ray continues the search for self, without the stringent belief system of his former companion. Readers may find it a tad convenient that Kerouac appropriate himself as the closer to truth Ray. Whatever the case, the polarity is an affective device.
Similar to On The Road, Kerouac writes with ease and eloquence, and at times, profound insights. Some of the more predictable scenes in the book feature hippy parties, road trips, and drug use, for which the author is famous. However, the book is just as full of sweet, quirky, and new ideas on Zen Buddhism that are slipped in between the sentences, along with a dozen or so lovely haikus. The crucial redeeming quality with this book is that Ray doesn't become too heady or obsessed with his philosophical inclinations. He simply goes about his way, making light comments about things without becoming the author's mouthpiece, an unfortunate aspect of many books.
From Oregon, California, Ohio, and the Carolinas (to name a few), Ray ends up home with his family, a failure in the context of the bohemian life he strived for. It is at this unlikely place he undergoes an experience that perhaps is as close and earnest as one can ever get to a selfless experience.
Kerourac manages to write a book about truth and God without being pedantic or self-righteous. Ray is humble and friendly, so readers are not intimidated, rather, they are that much more eager to join the quest. This is a warm, hope filled, and youthful novel written by an author who embodies the search in all of us.