A semi-autobiographical work, The Dharma Bums focuses on the adventures of Ray Smith, an up and coming writer who is also a Buddhist and a mountain climber. Throughout the novel, Smith searches for enlightenment and attempts to live a simpler life. He meets the poet Japhy Ryder. The two divide their time between major parties at Ryder's shack and spending time in nature, climbing Matterhorn and hiking the coast. At the end, Ryder heads to a monastery while Smith prepares to spend the summer on Desolation Peak.
The character Japhy drives Ray Smith's story, whose penchant for simplicity and Zen Buddhism influenced Kerouac on the eve of the sudden and unpredicted success of On the Road . The action shifts between the events of Smith and Ryder's "city life," such as three-day parties and enactments of the Buddhist "Yab-Yum" rituals, to the sublime and peaceful imagery where Kerouac seeks a type of transcendence. The novel concludes with a change in narrative style, with Kerouac working alone as a fire lookout on Desolation Peak (adjacent to Hozomeen Mountain), in what would soon be declared North Cascades National Park (see also Desolation Angels ). These elements place The Dharma Bums at a critical junction foreshadowing the consciousness-probing works of several authors in the 1960s such as Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey.
One episode in the book features Smith, Ryder, and Henry Morley (based on real-life friend John Montgomery) climbing Matterhorn Peak in California. It relates Kerouac's introduction to this type of mountaineering and inspired him to spend the following summer as a fire lookout for the United States Forest Service on Desolation Peak in Washington.
The novel also gives an account of the legendary 1955 Six Gallery reading, where Allen Ginsberg gave a debut presentation of his poem "Howl" (changed to "Wail" in the book), and other authors such as Snyder, Kenneth Rexroth, Michael McClure, and Philip Whalen performed.