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Ham on Rye – Andy goes back to the world according to Chinaski

February 24, 2011

SPOILERS! Henry Chinaski is a virgin at the end of Ham on Rye. This may be the most surprising end to a novel I’ve ever read.

But before we get to Bukowski, some housekeeping. Why are you hearing from me when it’s Netty’s turn…? Actually screw that. Follow this asterisk.* That’s where the housekeeping is.

Anyway, back to Bukowski and Ham on Rye.

So yes, Bukowski’s alter ego, Henry Chinaski, is still a virgin at the end of this autobiographical coming-of-age novel. Which is bizarre given that he’s talking about “it” by Chapter 13 (there are 58 chapters). Sex infuses these pages. Bukowski’s take on it is repulsive and compulsive and also very funny, often all three at the same time. It’s offensively explicit, often scatological, and there’s a casual, almost unconscious contempt for women that is particularly confronting. Chinaski is a filthy, filthy bastard. And Bukowski, too. But despite his obsessions, Chinaski doesn’t actually get laid. I’m assuming Chinaski’s experience closely mirrors Bukowski’s (this may be a mistake) and I’m surprised; given his wholehearted embrace of alcohol abuse from a very early age, I’d have expected women (the word is, after all, the title of another of his novels) to have featured far more – ah – explicitly in his mid to late teens. Especially since there’s one kid in the book who claims to have got laid at age 4. But no. Book finishes, no cha-cha for Chinaski. Bukowski handles this really well though; he depicts Chinaski’s empty bravura with what seems genuine self-deprecation. The poor guy spends quite a lot of his time thinking about getting it on. And he can’t.

Not that he spends all his time thinking about getting it on – in fact he also spends quite a bit of time thinking about why he maybe shouldn’t get it on, not in the committed, long-term way. Bukowski was a cult figure before the publication of Ham on Rye but I think this touches on why he was – and still is – a cult figure. Desperate as he is to lose his virginity he sees marriage (in which, in his day, many people still lost their virginity) and a career and middle-class existence generally as an abhorrent trap, one he has no intention of allowing himself to fall into. He spends a lot of time as a younger child contemplating his parents’ lives, and the negative influence he perceives them to have on each other and on him; in later life he sees some of these patterns repeated on a social level and he’s determined to avoid them.

Apologies. I realise I am conflating Chinaski and Bukowski. It just seems like the obvious thing to do.

Alcohol enters the picture quite a bit later than sex. It plays only a minor role to begin with but by the novel’s close – at which stage Chinaski is in his early 20s – it has already come close to destroying his life. Chinaski gets shitfaced and fights with everybody – friends, mostly – wrecks his room, is rendered virtually unemployable (not that he’s real interested in work) – and through it all he loves the grog, which is significantly responsible for his plight. I like to hope there are elements of self-deprecation here, too, but I’m not so sure. In fact I wonder about a lot of the self-aggrandisement that I’m tempted to assume is offered here with a touch of irony; Raymond Carver’s poem about a drunken night at Bukowski’s place is apparently pretty much word for word a Bukowski rant. It’s very similar in many ways to a lot of what Chinaski says about himself in Ham on Rye.

But then maybe Bukowski’s drunken rant was meant to be ironic, too.

If there are four foundations to the building of Chinaski – sex (or the lack of it), the rejection of the mainstream and alcohol being the first three – then writing, obviously, is the fourth. The chapters where he talks about his discovery of literature, of reading long after his father has yelled at him to turn his light out, his exploration of the local library; and then his own story-telling, fantastical to begin with but pretty soon offensive enough to make his father kick him out of home – these are some of the book’s best moments. It also allows Chinaski an occasional chink of humility – he’s prepared to admit that a friend of his is a better writer than he is, although this may partially explain why he later beats the shit out of him.

There are so many other elements of this story that are handled brilliantly – the childhood illness that caused lifelong disfigurement; Chinaski’s experiences at school and the misanthropy that shaped and was shaped by those experiences; his teachers and lecturers and employers and landladies; and a final, wonderfully poignant scene. I’d love to bang on about all of them but unfortunately I have a plane to catch…

Salman Rushdie famously told us to read everything Raymond Carver wrote. Bukowski wrote far too much to seriously contemplate saying the same about him, and apparently a swathe of what he wrote is rubbish. But the two novels of his I’ve read are sensational, and I’ll be seeking out more. If anybody has a volume of poetry to recommend, let me know…

*Housekeeping: Yes, you’re hearing from me two months in a row. That’s because Netty has decided to do what I did not have the courage to do and read one of Joyce Carol Oates’s Big Books. It’s just that she only decided to do that a fortnight ago (her version of this story may differ to mine). So I agreed to bring my Bukowski selection selection forward to February – 0r backward to February. I can never work that shit out. That means you’ll be hearing from Netty about Oates in March and from Netty about Bukowski in April.

Second lot of housekeeping: We were going to read Gibson’s Neuromancer in March. However, our other scifi selection for the year, Never Let Me Go, is out as a rather OK-looking movie in the next month. Ish. So, on the off chance that we wanted to read the book before we saw the fillum, we’ve decided to swap it with Neuromancer. Make sense? You know it does.

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