Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski

Well, last week Kim jumped away from the books on our list to do the new Stephen King book. I get to jump away too, right? She suggested I do Pearl by Tabitha King this week, since she was taking on one of Tabitha’s husband’s books the week before. However, though Pearl is on my list, I don’t have a copy yet. It’s on the way. Instead, I decided to revisit an old favorite: Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski.

Why not? Bukowski has been called the King of the Beats…even if he was really just a contemporary and didn’t have anything much to do with them. Also, he dated Linda King. Nothing to do with Stephen…but close enough, right?

Anyway, often regarded as Bukowski’s most successful prose work, Ham on Rye tracks the coming of age of Henry Chinaski through the desperation of Great Depression Los Angeles. (Well, okay…it’s really Bukowski. No one pretends otherwise. Bukowski tended to write highly autobiographical fiction.) And it’s not an easy life. It’s not an easy life for a lot of people at that time. Abusive father, disfiguring (to the point of permanent scarring) extreme acne, isolation, poverty, alcohol, prostitutes. It’s a low life.

To some extent, it’s the sort of thing that makes people wonder why I like Bukowski. He definitely behaved crudely at times, and I don’t emulate that. He tended to write plainly, and of depressing things. But, what I like about Bukowski is the quiet compassion underlying all of that. At least, apparently so. None of that may have been in Bukowski himself. He may have been a horrible man. However, there are moments in his writing where I could forgive almost anything:

Finally it was the day of the Senior Prom. It was held in the girls’ gym with live music, a real band. I don’t know why but I walked over that night, the two-and-one-half miles from my parents’ place. I stood outside in the dark and I looked in there, through the wire-covered window, and I was astonished. All the girls looked very grown-up, stately, lovely, they were in long dresses, and they all looked beautiful. I almost didn’t recognize them. And the boys in their tuxes, they looked great, they danced so straight, each of them holding a girl in his arms their faces pressed against the girl’s hair. They all danced beautifully and the music was loud and clear and good, powerful.

Then I caught a glimpse of my reflection staring in at them—boils and scars on my face, my ragged shirt. I was like some jungle animal drawn to the light and looking in. Why had I come? I felt sick. But I kept watching. The dance ended. There was a pause. Couples spoke easily to each other. It was natural and civilized. Where had they learned to converse and to dance? I couldn’t converse or dance. Everybody knew something I didn’t know. The girls looked so good, the boys so handsome. I would be too terrified to even look at one of those girls, let alone be close to one. To look into her eyes or dance with her would be beyond me.

*****

Then there was a sound behind me.

“Hey! What are you doing?”

It was an old man with a flashlight. He had a head like a frog’s head.

“I’m watching the dance.”

He held the flashlight right up under his nose. His eyes were round and large, they gleamed like a cat’s eyes in the moonlight. But his mouth was shriveled, collapsed, and his head was round. It had a peculiar senseless roundness that reminded me of a pumpkin trying to play pundit.

“Get your ass out of here!”

Some people like Bukowski for the anger and the whores and the drinking and any of that. That’s all just background for me, personally. I like Bukowski for the tenderness under that, the tenderness despite that. Bukowski preferred isolation, from women and men both, but I think he was pulling for everyone more than some people imagine. That empathy for what every person goes through trying to be alive is what I like most about Bukowski, and what I love about Ham on Rye.

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