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Tuesday, July 5, 2011

BOOK REVIEW: Charles Bukowski HAM ON RYE (2001) Canongate, 318 pages (originally published in 1982).

In my continuing appraisal of Bukowski’s writing, I am now going to take a close look at his fourth novel HAM ON RYE (1982). This is Bukowski’s Bildungsroman and chronologically slots in before his best written novel Factotum (1975). It begins with narrator Henry Chinaski’s earliest memories in Germany in 1922 and ends with news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941. This novel is clearly auto-biographical and dramatises many of Bukowski’s anecdotes about his early life in L.A. which readers, familiar with his life, will vividly recall- the vicious beatings by his father, his terrible affliction with acne vulgaris, his visits to the public library & his days at LA City College and his early struggles on skid row.

The first hundred pages or so of the novel are slow going and do not include many memorable incidents but the writing is characteristically sparkling clear and easy to imagine in your head. Probably the turning point in my interest is an incident Chinaski recounts when he is in Grade 8. He acts as a look-out so his friend Pete can have sex with Lilly in the back seat of an abandoned car behind the school. Pete has difficulty getting his ‘meat’ hard because he thinks he is being watched. Lilly calls him a queer and as she tongues him about fifty people from a nearby football field race up and surround the car.

Also hilarious is Chinaski’s description of his mother & grandmother attempting to exorcise the large swollen boils on his back in chapter 32. In the scene’s climax, grandma  pokes a crucifix into the center of his infested back and screams out, “PURGE THE DEVIL FROM MY BOY’S BODY!’

On Writing & Reading

More fascinating are Chinaski’s recollections of his first attempts at writing fiction. In Grade 9 he undergoes painful acne treatment and his whole head is bandaged. He feels wonderful because his boils are hidden: ‘I felt very exceptional and a bit evil. Nobody had any idea of what happened to me. Car crash. A fight to the death. A murder. Fire. Nobody knew.’ The next day resting at home he begins to write imaginary first-hand accounts from the point of view of World War 1 German flying ace Baron Von Himmlen. The fantasy helps him deal with the lack of a male role model in his own life: ‘It make me feel good to write about the Baron. A man needed somebody. There wasn’t anybody around, so you had to make up somebody, make him up to be like a man should be.’

When Chinaski is fifteen he discovers the La Cienega Public Library. At first he does not find the books engaging: ‘They were very dull. There were pages and pages of words that didn’t say anything. Or if they did say something they took too long to say it and by the time they said it you already were too tired to have it matter at all.’ Then he finds Upton Sinclair and other writers like D.H. Laurence, Sherwood Anderson and Hemingway. Chinaski reads a book a day and realises in a moment of epiphany the power of words to enlighten and transform one’s life: ‘Words weren’t dull, words were things that could make your mind hum. If you read them and let yourself feel the magic, you could live without pain, with hope, no matter what happened to you.’

In an interview with Hustler Magazine Bukowski claimed to that his fiction was 93 per cent accurate and the remainder an improvement on his life. In his 2005 biography CHARLES BUKOWSKI Barry Miles states that his stories were 'closer to 50 per cent fact, 50 per cent fantasy.' Many of the anecdotes in this novel appear larger than life. Chinaski is a cynical, self doubting loner & hater of people but he constantly seems to attract a constant stream of people. At school, he realizes that ‘the poor and the lost and the idiots continued to flock around me.’ He concludes, ‘It looked like it was my destiny to travel in their company through life…I was like a turd that drew flies instead of like a flower that butterflies and bees desired. I wanted to live alone, I felt best being alone, cleaner.’

Although Chinaski is depicted in high school as an unsporty outsider, his successful exploits in boxing, baseball, football and cards show him as a winner against all odds. These exploits appear contrived and largely hyperbolic, but highly entertaining nonetheless.

The Future

Outside his school at the Senior Prom he catches a glimpse of his ugly face. He feels sickened, rejected but ultimately defiant, ‘As I watched them I said to myself, someday my dance will begin. When that day comes I will have something that they don’t have.’

While attending L.A. City College Chinaski’s father reads some of his short stories hidden under the lining of his wardrobe drawer and kicks him out of the house because of  their vulgarity. Henry is torn between continuing his formal education in journalism and the lure of knowledge from the street. He decides to quit college to gain practical life experience: ‘The whole college scene was soft. They never told you what to expect out there in the real world. They just crammed you with theory and never told you how hard the pavements were.’

After he contemplates leaving college Chinaski has only a vague idea what he wants to do and is uncertain whether he will survive. ‘Maybe I could live off my wits. The eight-hour was impossible, yet almost everybody submitted to it.’ He also rejects the idea of enlisting in the Army as America enters World War II, ‘Here I was a virgin. Could you imagine getting your ass blown off for the sake of history before you even knew what a woman was? Or owned an automobile? What would I be protecting? Somebody else. Somebody else who didn’t give a shit about me.’ He concludes rashly, ‘ I could make it. I could win drinking contests, I could gamble. Maybe I could pull a few holdups. I didn’t ask much, just to be left alone.’

In a conventional Bildungsroman, or a story of growing up, the protagonist reaches maturity and resolves his conflict with society and is accepted by the community. Chinaski, in contrast, strongly rejects middle class notions of belonging. As his high school life is coming to an end, he strongly states his position, ‘I didn’t know what I wanted. Yes, I did. I wanted someplace to hide out, someplace where one didn’t have to do anything. The thought of being something didn’t only appall me, it sickened me. The thought of being a lawyer or a councilman or an engineer, anything like that, seemed impossible to me. To get married, to have children, to get trapped in the family structure. To go someplace to work every day and return. It was impossible.’

Due to his abusive treatment as a child he despises his father and his hypocritical family values, ‘Take the family, mix with God and Country, add the ten-hour day and you had what you needed.’  When he looks at his father he sees him as ‘a stranger’ and because his mother did nothing to prevent his beatings, he sees her as ‘non-existent.’ Tragically, he rejects the pain and triviality of family life and prefers the freedom of living alone, ‘To do things, simple things, to be part of family picnics, Christmas, the 4th of July, labor Day, Mother’s Day… was a man born just to endure those things and then die? I would rather be a dishwasher, return alone to a tiny room and drink myself to sleep.’ When he lands a permanent job at Mears-Starbuck as a stockclerk he soon finds it demeaning & thinks of  exiling himself, ‘What I wanted was a cave in Colorado with three-years worth of foodstuffs and drink. I’d wipe my ass with sand. Anything, anything to stop drowning in this dull, trivial and cowardly existence.’

After his first few visits to skid row he finds the lifestyle ‘disgusting’ but recognizes that ‘the life of the sane, average man was dull, worse than death.’ He understands clearly that he is different and will never fit into a conventional 9 to 5 life, “I knew that I wasn’t entirely sane. I still knew, as I had as a child, there was something strange about myself. I felt as if I were destined to be a murderer, a bank robber, a saint, a rapist, a monk, a hermit. I needed an isolated place to hide.’ As a teenager he joins the ROTC and is quickly disillusioned and makes a scathing assessment of Americans, 'At the age of 25 most people were finished. A whole god-damned nation of assholes driving automobiles, eating, having babies, doing everything in the worst way possible, like voting for the presidential candidate who reminded them most of themselves.’

After he is kicked out of home Chinaski drinks more heavily and abandons writing. To him, drinking ‘took away the obvious’, that ‘drink was the only thing that kept a man from feeling forever stunned and useless.’ Near the end of the novel, he admits to his friend Becker, ‘Without drink I would have long ago cut my god-damned throat.’

Chinaski is dissatisfied with his first attempts at writing short stories and views them as coming out ‘very bitter and ragged. Not that that was so bad but the stories seemed to beg, they didn’t have their own vitality.’ He recognizes his stories are darker and stranger than his friend Becker, ‘but they didn’t work.’ Later in a conversation with Becker about publication of short stories in elite magazines such as The New Yorker, Chinaski voices his frustration at their in-house style, ‘This is 1940. They’re still publishing 19th-century stuff, heavy, labored, pretentious. You either get a headache reading the stuff or you fall asleep.’ He concludes that like education, like the divide between the rich and the poor, the system is fixed, a trap, ‘It’s a trick, it’s a con, a little inside game.’ Becker tries to pursue the matter and Chinaski is blunt, ‘Only assholes talk about writing.’ There is a violent fist fight and a mirror and furniture are smashed. Chinaski is forced to vacate his room as he cannot afford to pay for the damage. He finds another cheap room. For the next eight years Bukowski  lives on the edge moving from job to job and nearly drinking himself to death as fictionalised in his novel Factotum.


Despite the novel's lackluster start it is certainly worth reading- particularly for Bukowski’s detailed take on his iconic childhood experiences. Bukowski's style and subject matter are simple but what I admire about his writing is that he never pulls a punch. He never self censures to placate a nervy publisher or readership. He tells it like it is. Without restraint. Without dumbing it down. Without insulting the reader’s intelligence. And he always offers something more for the reader to think about. Arguably, how they can improve their own lives. How they can find worth and happiness. Ironically, how they can make the little things matter.