Tuesday, 5 June 2012
One Man's Opinion: HAM ON RYE by CHARLES BUKOWSKI
I'd been suffering from 'Reader's Block' when I picked up this offering from Charles 'Hank' Bukowski.
It didn't take more than a few minutes and a couple of pages to realise I was hooked.
To date, my main brushes with Hank have been through short stories and poetry, both of which I've loved. Why I didn't immediately pick up his longer prose, I have no idea. I have no excuses any more and there are more books in the post.
Henry Chinaski is the name of the German American boy at the centre of this book. He's a solitary boy. An outsider. For lots of reasons. One of them being that he's human and growing up in a time of depression and alienation.
Mr and Mrs Chinaski are tough cookies. They're intending to make their mark in a kind of middle-class way. They're proud. Hopeful. God-fearing.
Early on, Henry introduces other relatives. There's his alcoholic uncle and grandad. Another uncle is all washed up and dying already, even though he's in his early twenties. There's his aunt and his cousins, penniless and without a man in the house since the man raped a young girl and went on the run. It's not a healthy family.
Each of the characters is introduced in a short chapter. It's a collection of vignettes early doors, written sparsely and without pretence. The pieces have the weight and craft of great short stories, each closing with a punch that had me feeling the encounter. Seeing a bigger picture. Admiring the survivors of those tough times.
From family, he moves on to describe incidents with friends, sport, acne, alcohol, school, books, violence and girls. They're wonderfully drawn pictures. Seriously powerful.
Right the way through, a spade's a spade. Which makes me wonder why it's so bloody poetic. Perhaps it's something to do with the juxtapositions of one idea onto another, the layers of meaning and less-than-obvious comparisons.
Take this one chapter. Chinaski's in English class. His teacher, a beautiful thing, sits out front with her dress rising. In the back row, one of his classmates is jerking himself off. The teacher tells the class about the European tradition of literature and talks about the new Americans who are going to blow them off the page. Hank seems to be screaming out that what has come before is literary masturbation, what is about to arrive is the new breed. And the new breed is Chinaski and the new breed is Bukowski and A-men to that.
What Bukowski seems to be doing is creating the legend of himself. Taking his life and embellishing wherever he can or needs to. Maybe sometimes this goes too far, but at those points I found it useful to remind myself that it's a work of fiction and not biography. Sure, he uses poetic licence, but he is entirely justified in that.
It would have been great to hear Hemingway and Bukowski comparing fishing stories, by the way. 'Mine was this big,' Hem might suggest while holding his arms as wide as he could. 'That was nothing. Mine was bigger than this,' Hank might reply, dropping his trousers and admiring himself.
The story is fascinating. Brilliantly told. Refreshing and honest and dishonest and very well worth while picking up.
Read and weep.