Making the hideous into the sublime

Book Review:

Ham on Rye

by Charles Bukowski

A little back story here; I have done what I think of as critical reading to expand my horizons as a writer for the last year with some focus.  During that time I have worked to delve deeper into short stories or writers from the mid-twentieth century.  I think of it as a bit like genealogy.  That being said, in 2011 I read something like fifty novels and several hundred short stories.  Far more than I can remember probably.  During the time I felt myself getting further and further buried in the detritus and  weight of the sheer density of the corpus of genre literature of the last century.

I reached the decision that further reading was actually depressing me and serving as a deterrent to writing.  Between the process of recursive revisions on my earlier manuscript, struggling with the voice of, “One Damned Thing” and trying to come up with short stories for contests I felt pretty overwhelmed by the Ecclesiastes like sentiment that it has all been done.  So to break the cycle of what was clearly me acting out against being productive, I changed gears on my critical reading to classic literature and something dark, gritty and hopeless to awaken my sense of hope and possibility.

Thus, Ham on Rye.  I read some Bukowski in college, but as required reading for a class I did not enjoy it. I came back to the well to see if the black, fetid water would slake my thirst for a past which made me long for other worlds and the future once more.

Ham on Rye, considered one of Charles Bukowski’s best novels, is a semi-autobiographical  retelling of his own meager and harsh childhood during the great depression in California.

The story’s choppy and the prose is terse and dense.  You might think I’m trying to find fault with it, but I am not.  Where as I have never been a fan of Hemingway’s style, I found Bukowski could only pack so much ugly into a sentence and then stopped.  Henry Chinaski, the main character, while deserving of sympathy is also a loner so deeply indoctrinated into his own process of alienation that he distances himself from his own existence.  The story unfolds like someone telling an awful fairy-tale about someone they once heard about.  The monsters are all human beings, but they are humans pushed beyond the edge of empathy.  It is book of terrible people, doing terrible things to each other under the guise of class, culture,fear and desperation.  You would think this would make reading it torture, but it does not.  The pages fly by.  I read it in two sittings.

I loved the book, but I loved it because it kept me at attention looking for the moment when Henry Chinaski would either catch a break, or be broken by the weight and cruelty of his reality.

The writing, though sparse, is dark, bitter and crude and even a hardened, vulgar, cynic like myself flinched at times from the turn of a phrase or a passage repugnant, yet true. This is the kind of story that leaves you faced with unpleasant questions about life.

I would recommend it, but with the caveat that the subject matter is not for the easily offended. His handling of women is especially crude and they are often the focus of his disdain and misanthropy.

-Seamus

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