(Warning: This post contains language not allowed in my classroom.)
I finished reading Charles Bukowski’s first novel, Ham on Rye, last week while taking a class on developing curriculum using an arts integration approach based on “Teaching for Understanding” which may mean something to you if you’re in elementary or secondary education. If not, I would explain it to you but C.J. has banned me from discussing anything having to do with education.
I’m on vacation, after all, so shut up about school already.
The night after he issued his ban I dreamed about school, of course. I dreamed that I was asked to be on three different committees and that I agreed to be on all three of them, something I now know to avoid whenever possible. When I woke up there was one of those moments when you’re not sure if you dreamed what just happened or not, so I came-to with a clear sense of panic.
“What have I done? Three committees!!!!”
Then I realized it was only a nightmare.
I am very late to the party with Charles Bukowski. Mr. Bukowski wrote about his own life, most of it on or near L.A.’s Skid Row and Bunker Hill neighborhoods in the last century well before either area became trendy. Skid Row is still waiting for that happy day but the Bunker Hill area is doing pretty well, I hear. Mr. Bukowski is probably one of the best chroniclers of America’s underclass.
Last year I read one of his late books, Hollywood based on the time he spent working on the film Barfly which is based on his life and work. I loved it, so I asked around. Do you like Charles Bukowski? What do you recommend?
Ham and Rye came up again and again as his best book.
The first in a series of books about Henry Chinaski, a character clearly based on the author, Ham and Rye is the bildungsroman, the one about the artist’s childhood. While I enjoyed it, though no as much as I did Hollywood, and I can say it’s an excellent book, I probably won’t be reading many more by Charles Bukowski.
Henry Chinaski’s childhood is a terror. Extreme poverty during 1930’s depression era Los Angeles. His abusive parents made worse by unemployment and dreams of success that never materialized. His schooling and his peers both sources of alienation when they should be bridges to greater connection. As a teenager he developes a case of acne so severe that his high school insists he take a semester off to receive treatment his appearance is so horrifying.
It’s no wonder he took to drink.
But there really isn’t all that much drinking in Ham on Rye. Charles Bukowski was a famed literary drunk, so I was expecting cover-to-cover liquor, which was basically the case with Hollywood though he had largely stopped drinking by that point in his life.
There is drinking in Ham on Rye some of it epic in scale. Once Henry gets started, he really takes to the bottle. Basically, while his peers have ambitions that lead them on to work and to college or to crime, Henry just wants to drink. And drink he does.
I’ve an in-law who has been sober over 35 years now. When he was young and drinking he loved Charles Bukowski, couldn’t get enough of him. After he hit bottom and entered A.A. he found Bukowski’s writing to be equivalent to going to meetings listening to people tell stories about their drinking days. There’s a lot of that at A.A. meetings.
I’ve never gone to an A.A. meetings; my worst drinking story couldn’t hold a candle against Mr. Bukowski’s, but I can see what my in-law means.
I began to lose patience with Henry Chinaski well before the end of Ham on Rye. I can grant that he has terrible parents, that his own childhood set him up for failure, but his own actions enter into the equation, too. He’s kind of a jerk at the start of the story; a full-blown dick by the end. Just because your childhood was hard doesn’t mean you’re not an asshole.
And just because you’re an asshole doesn’t mean you’re not a darn good writer. Charles Bukowski is a darn good writer. Give the asshole his due.
This post is fully embracing the biographical fallacy, something I always try to avoid. It is wrong to conflate the main character, no matter how autobiographical he may appear to be, with the author. They are not the same person and should not be read as such.
But they just seem so darn close in Ham on Rye. While I don’t find Henry Chinaski appealing at the end of the day, or the end of the book, looking at Charles Bukowski as a body of work, not just a single novel, I can see the attraction.
Just not so sure I want to keep looking.