Soul food: Jack Kerouac, Charles Johnson

October 17, 2012

Japhy – Gary Snyder – has no interest in the Buddhism of Chinatown, he likes only the real thing, the Zen taught in Japan.   But Kerouac likes everything, especially after a feast of dim sum at Nam Yuen’s.  Coming out of the restaurant he notices some black preachers “preaching to desultory groups of uninterested Chinese families,” especially “a big fat woman like Ma Rainey… standing there with her legs out-spread howling out a tremendous sermon in a booming voice that kept breaking from speech to blues-singing music.”  Of course these preachers should be in a book called Dharma Bums.   It isn’t quite a concession to the Catholicism of his mother, the Catholicism he was raised in, but close enough.

Sort of like the work of Charles Johnson  – Oxherding Tale, Middle Passage, Dreamer, and the collection of short stories, Dr. King’s Refrigerator – all inspired by Buddhism (Johnson had converted in 1977), but somehow turning it into a template for slavery and the legacy of slavery, comically mixed in with food.

In the title story of the short story collection, Dr. King stays up working on a sermon.  To fortify himself, he looks into the refrigerator for a late-night snack and finds ”bright yellow slices of pineapple from Hawaii, truffles from England . . . a half-eaten Mexican tortilla . . . German sauerkraut and schnitzel right beside Tibetan rice . . . macaroni, spaghetti and ravioli favored by Italians.”   The sermon will be about the interconnectedness of human beings, about basic needs that unite us all.

A Christian sermon, of course, not Buddhist.   But close enough.

About wcd2

Professor of English and American Studies
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