Monday, February 28, 2011

Bukowski’s “Ham On Rye” Pulls No Punches In Portrayal of Depression-Era L.A.

“I hated all the god-damned people who were sunbathing or in the water or eating or sleeping or talking or throwing beachballs. I hated their behinds and their faces and their elbows and their hair and their eyes and their bellybuttons and their bathing suits … The whole earth was nothing but mouths and assholes swallowing and shitting, and fucking.”

“So, that’s what they wanted: lies. Beautiful lies. That’s what they needed. People were fools. It was going to be easy for me.”

“We were the way we were, and we didn’t want to be anything else. We all came from Depression families and most of us were ill-fed, yet we had grown up to be huge and strong. Most of us, I think, got little love from our families, and we didn’t ask for love or kindness from anybody. We were a joke but people were careful not to laugh in front of us. It was as if we had grown up too soon and we were bored with being children. We had no respect for our elders. We were like tigers with the mange.”

I don’t really remember who recommended or where I found a recommendation to Charles Bukowksi, but I do know he ended up on my reading list somehow. After all, sometimes I use Amazon’s Wish List as kind of a notes/placeholder deal, putting intriguing items on there for closer scrutiny later. Well, at Christmastime two of Bukowski’s books ended up in my lap as gifts, so I figured, “What the heck, let’s give this dude a shot.”

Smart move, Scooter. Smart move.

I found “Ham on Rye” to be eminently quotable (as you’ll see for yourself), a no-holds-barred, not-so-semi-autobiographical account of Bukowski’s own upbringing, childhood and adolescence in Depression Era Los Angeles. Bukowski’s rapid, abrupt, clipped sentences lend to the story’s tremendous pacing, while his accounts of rampant racism, violence and abuse are alternately horrifying and hilarious, forcing an open-mindedness in the reading.

Written in 1982, Bukowski somewhat ironically dedicates the book “for all the fathers,” despite the fact that his father is an abusive, sociopathic, warped, cheating man who demonstrates no traces of love or respect for his lone child. Despite the fact that the father is terrifying in many ways, he is also incredibly funny in others; think “Shit My Dad Says” gone horribly wrong and abusive.

“‘The trouble is that there are too many Chinks. When you kill a Chink he splits in half and becomes two Chinks.’
‘How come their skin is yellow?’
‘Because instead of drinking water they drink their own pee-pee.’
‘Daddy, don’t tell the boy that!’
‘Then tell him to stop asking questions.’”

“‘He just stares. He’s so quiet.’
‘That’s the way we want him.’
‘Still water runs deep.’
‘Not with this one. The only thing that runs deep with him are the holes in his ears.’”

“He was the dark covering the sun, the violence of him made everything else utterly disappear … I felt that even the sun belonged to my father, that I had no right to it because it was shining upon my father’s house. I was like his roses, something that belonged to him and not to me …”

The lead character, Henry Chinaski, encounters a series of demented characters that are either pitiful, violent or both, with both of those attributes permeating most of the story. The endless series of verbal and physical hammerings at the hands of his father quickly turn Henry into an outcast, misanthropic, no-shit-taking cynic at an almost impossibly young age. His disturbed views of sex and relationships hover over almost every encounter he has with people of both sexes throughout the story. (side note: Did Bukowski ever draw the lines between his incessant beatings at the hands of his father in the bathroom to his complex about going to the bathroom and it being “dirty”?)

It seems that Henry has a sense of going through life without an instruction book that everyone else had been issued at birth (“Everybody knew something I didn’t know” and “What a weary time those years were -- to have the desire and the need to live but not the ability.”).

“There was always somebody pushing me who had no right to push … What did they want? Why was I in their way?”

“There was no sense to life, to the structure of things … You needed love, but not the kind of love most people used and were used up by.”

As a result, Henry develops a firm hatred of entitlement and the entitled.

“But I had this feeling inside of me that something real was there. Just hardened shit, maybe, but that was more than they had … 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.”

“Yet, despite their smooth untouched bodies and minds they still were missing something because they were as yet basically untested. When adversity finally arrived in their lives it might come too late or too hard. I was ready. Maybe.”

“They were soft, they had never faced any fire. They were beautiful nothings. They made me sick. I hated them. They were part of the nightmare that always haunted me in one form or another.”

Despite the barren, unfortunate circumstances cast in the light of the Depression, Bukowksi manages to add humor at almost every level, even in situations where laughs would seem to be almost impossible to accomplish. Early on, Henry reminds a little of Ralphie from “Christmas Story,” with his hilarious daydreams of sports heroism and his creative writings about physically scarred heroes with true beauty just underneath the surface (“ … since some people had told me that I was ugly, I always preferred shade to the sun, darkness to light.”).

Yet the overriding sense is that every person Henry comes in contact with is either mean or criminal, which may be a reflection of the era of extreme poverty (“The poor had a right to fuck their way through their bad dreams. Sex and drink, and maybe love, was all they had.”) in which the story is set. From harsh, evil schoolkids (“At Delsey we had a code. We never made a sound. Even the sissies took their beatings silently.”) to brushes with perverts and child molesters, to drunk seventh-graders to first-graders attempting to have sex, Bukowski seems to be trying hard to show man’s inhumanity to man (throwing in a parable-ish description of the entrapment of a cat for the purpose of a bulldog killing it).

“Not only did the grownups get mean, the kids got mean, and even the animals got mean. It was like they took their cue from the people.”

“Why did the guys need this? This wasn’t a matter of courage, it was just dirty play. Where were the grownups? Where were the authorities? They were always around accusing me. Now where were they? … The knowledge that I didn’t have the courage to do what was necessary made me feel terrible.”

“That cat wasn’t only facing the bulldog, it was facing Humanity.”

Bukowski has no problem taking on very anti-establishment, controversial, untouchable traditional issues such as religion (including a dog baptism), sexuality (involving a retarded kid masturbating in the middle of class every day to a teacher who continues to show leg and doesn’t stop it), deformation (Henry contracts an almost inconceivable case of adolescent acne and boils that makes you pity him even when he acts like a prick) and animal torture (and worse). Henry becomes so jaded (“When you’re bad you didn’t pretend, it was just there. I liked being bad. Trying to be good made me sick.”) that he quickly rejects any achievement whatsoever, even physically and metaphorically throwing a medal in the sewer at one point. He even leans toward Nazism almost sheerly out of contrarianism during his ill-fated stints in higher education.

“She had her skirt pulled especially high, it was terrifying, beautiful, wondrous and dirty. Such legs, such thighs, we were very close to the magic … The skirt was so high, pulled back, we all prayed for a glimpse of panty, a glimpse of something, Jesus Christ, it was like the world ending and beginning and ending again, it was everything real and unreal, the sun, the thighs, and the silk, so smooth, so warm, so alluring. The whole room throbbed.”

“That’s what made it so good and so terrible: the fact that she pretended that it wasn’t happening.”

“Getting drunk was good. I decided that I would always like getting drunk. It took away the obvious and maybe if you could get away from the obvious often enough, you wouldn’t become obvious yourself.”

“Drink was the only thing that kept a man from feeling forever stunned and useless. Everything else just kept picking and picking, hacking away. And nothing was interesting, nothing. The people were restrictive and careful, all alike. And I’ve got to live with these fuckers for the rest of my life, I thought.”

For me, Henry’s sexuality came into question near the end. As Henry devolved into a mid-20s drifter (and a hysterical drunk) who is still a virgin, I found myself wondering if he was gay, or at least a misogynist. He becomes nauseous at the prospect of being with his friend Jimmy’s mother, Clare, after he continued pursuing her and she eventually relented, and he seems to identify most with and maybe even be attracted to Becker. Finally, we are left with a somewhat sudden and forbidding ending as World War II begins in earnest for the US and we see Becker departing for the war as Henry continues to wander around, searching for meaning in empty arcades and emptier competitions.

“I wasn’t interested in world history, only my own. What crap. Your parents controlled your growing-up period, they pissed all over you. Then when you got ready to go out on your own, the others wanted to stick you into a uniform so you could get your ass shot off.”

“I felt I had to win. It seemed very important. I didn’t know why it was so important and I kept thinking, why do I think this is so important?
“And another part of me answered, just because it is.”

“Ham on Rye” was unquestionably a disturbing and depressing book, but also brave and unflinching, painting a rare picture of the Depression with no apologies or pretensions. In terms of the writing, it became very adolescent-oriented and highly sexualized (“Her breasts were something that no mere mortal would ever see—they were only for kings, dictators, rulers, Filipinos.”) in many parts, and a couple of typos here and there were a bit jarring as well. Yet the use of Henry as our eyes and ears was a brilliant technique by Bukowski: Henry is so ostracized that he exists almost outside of the world, observing and commenting on it instead of being actively involved and within it. That’s probably why the story also comes across as being largely about hiding and waiting (“I wallowed there in the dark, waiting for something.”).

Distilled all the way down, this is essentially a book about getting hit so many times that you’re numb physically, mentally, literally and figuratively—yet you never give up your willingness to keep getting back up after falling down. If you can get past the brutal, stark harshness of it all, you may even find, as I did, a belief that “Ham on Rye” deserves perhaps a higher stature in the catalogues of American literature.

“You’ve given me a supreme test with my parents and with these boils. I think that I have passed Your test. I am tougher than You. If You will come down here right now, I will spit into your face, if You have a face. And do You shit? … I think that You have been picking on me too much so I am asking You to come down here so I can put You to the test!”

“‘Maybe after a few beers I’ll beat the shit out of you.’
‘We’re friends, Hank.’
‘I don’t have any friends. Drink up!’”

“The problem was you had to keep choosing between one evil or another, and no matter what you chose, they sliced a little bit more off you, until there was nothing left. 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.”

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