Saturday, March 5, 2011

Ham On Rye

(1982) by Charles Bukowski

Bukowski, Bukowski, Bukowski.

Refreshing your memory, Ham on Rye is a volume of the fictional autobiography of Henry Chinaski, Bukowski's alter ego. It covers the years between his birth in 1920 until Pearl Harbor. My paperback version had 283 pages and 58 chapters (about 85,000 words). A little less than five pages per chapter. Each chapter is a short story (a little under 1500 words each). The stories are related and in chronological order.

First and foremost, Bukowski writes flawless prose (Hemingway-esque, straight forward, short sentences). He tries to make each story interesting. I call them stories, but they are reminiscences (as appropriate to autobiography) in which the narrator explains what happened, how it made him feel, and what he did in response. It is difficult to believe that he could pull this off 58 times in a row, but he does, mostly.

I am prompted to a short digression here. At some point, during our younger days, the short story died.  Raymond Carver and others are credited with reviving it in the 1980's. Raymond Carver wrote good prose.  I read 300 pages of Carver and found little to quibble with. I also found little of interest.  His stories, by and large, were slices of life; they started off someplace and ended up somewhere else.  They were subtle.  They were too subtle.  If the short story was indeed revived, it was only in the desiccated brains and crusted hearts of academics.

Bukowski expended the imagination and effort to make his stories interesting. He eschews subtlety while still, somehow, retaining it. He embraces adolescent fantasy (well, it does cover Chinaski's adolescent years, so he gets a by here). Young Chinaski is boorish, violent, ignorant, unsophisticated, ugly and repellant.  Bukowski has Chinaski make the case for him (Chinaski) as best he can.  He lies, rationalizes and excuses - but after all, these are the standard tools of autobiography.  He succeeded in making the essentially uninteresting interesting. Carver et. al. could have learned something there.

I have read a few pieces of Bukowski's poetry. I find it adolescent and unremarkable (this probably says more about me than about Bukowski's poetry). He grabs hurriedly for the cheaply sensational; his rebelliousness is that of the adolescent; his lamentations on love are the cheap lovesick musings of youth. He never grew to emotional maturity. (I say this as though I grew to emotional maturity myself. What chutzpah!)

I find parallels with Ellroy's adolescence. Bukowski/Chinaski and Ellroy are social outcasts, miscreants, substance abusers, pointlessly rebellious, and sexual retards. But, they both can write and hold your attention. Bukowski's prose is far superior - Ellroy can be wordy/redundant.  I regard Ellroy as a little more emotionally advanced. Neither can be accused of being too subtle.

And that's the way it is (Walter Cronkite is rolling in his grave).

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