Wednesday, July 3, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: Ham On Rye (1982) - Charles Bukowski

I've read many of Bukowski's short stories and poems, but I figured I should start his novels with the one that's hailed as his best. Ham On Rye stars Bukowski's alter-ego, Henry Chinaski, who is seen throughout his other novels and short stories, following him from his earliest memories up until his first job.

The book continues Bukowski's straight-forward prose, but within his tales of teenage angst and budding sexuality, as with all of his work, there's a unique poignancy to the characters Chinaski encounters (and Chinaski himself). Perhaps the most telling thing of Chinaski is not how he thinks, but how he acts towards women.

Being able to get inside his head, we hear his intense attraction towards almost every woman he meets, yet every time he is offered sex, he refuses. One example is when a teacher of his offers him sex in order to get him to keep up with his studies. Another time, he stays at a friends place, and hits on his mom until she offers him sex (which he then refuses). It could be because his parents Christianity is so far embedded in him, that he feels shameful, although I doubt that, considering how vehemently he despises his parents (and religion). I think there's a romantic deeply engrained in Chinaski (as I believe the same with Bukowski) but he cloaks it behind his idea of stoicism in masculinity, and while he has the burning temptation to have sex, he wants it to be genuine and not something cheap, bartered with a teacher, or taken from an easy cougar.

The most telling part of this is Chinaski's love for literature, and writing. It seems to be the only thing that helps him escape this imprisoned idea of stoic masculinity, the bluffing, the fighting, the sport. And so he begins his own set of stories and poems, which his abusive father eventually finds. Disgusted by their content, he throws Chinaski out of the house, where Chinaski fends for himself, barely surviving hotel room to hotel room, living off of alcohol and writing.

One of the reasons why I love Bukowski's writing so much is that he finds beauty in the mundane, the poignancy in every day life that others would just write off as "boring." The same vein contains the equally passionate love I have for David Lynch's film work, and it's no surprise that Bukowski named Eraserhead as one of his favorite films (although he hated film, in general). Both Lynch and Bukowski explore the surreal, idiosyncratic nature of humans, but instead of it coming across as forced or simply done for the sake of being different, as many artists who try to imitate them come across, both Bukowski and Lynch have a genuine heart for their work, and it shows.

The story ends on an equally mundane and poetic note. Chinaski walks into a penny arcade and begins playing a boxing game with a young Mexican boy. He feels this drive to pummel the Mexican boy into the ground, this drive to win. He philosophically questions why it's so important to win a stupid boxing game, and he answers himself with, "...just because it is." Chinaski loses, and leaves.

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