Ham On Rye by Charles Bukowski

Ham On Rye - Charles Bukowski coverHaving explored some of the writings of the Beat Generation, particularly works by Kerouac and Ginsberg and some from Cassady and Burroughs, one name stood out amongst the related writers as something potentially a bit different but sharing some of the same head space, Charles Bukowski. So, last time I was at City Lights Bookstore I picked up the book of his that stood out most from the many on the shelf, Ham On Rye.

Instantly its clear that, while yes there is a similarity to the Beats in terms of its setting in a very real world America of the 20th century, this book was published later (1982 quite impressively) but is set far earlier and in a very focussed location of Los Angeles in the 1920s and 30s, away from the New York and San Francisco of the 40s, 50s and early 60s the Beats more commonly dealt with.

Superficially the books is, apparently, a semi-autobiographical account of the youth of Bukowski’s regular avatar, Henry ‘Hank’ Chinaski, dealing with his formative years through school and his first steps into the adult world and the outbreak of the Second World War.

Throughout this Chinaski comes across as a thoroughly awful character but one who is undeniably compelling. His words (it’s all first person) giving a sense of real brutality he experiences at the hands of seemingly everyone he encounters from parents, teachers, contemporaries and more and the brutal nature of his response to all this.

Charles Bukowski

Charles Bukowski

Bukowski’s style of writing really exacerbates this being at once simplistic, at times as if written by the young Chinaski, but extremely impactful for it. There is no sense of wasted words or floridity as it is delivered as directly and bluntly as Chinaski’s actions.

Within this Bukowski paints a picture of a side of America that maybe hasn’t translated across the Atlantic as well as some others. From my experience the Great Depression of the early 1930s is always depicted as very much an East Coast, South and Mid West phenomena with news reel of the hungry and jobless in New York and Chicago or the drought conditions of the more rural areas seen in the likes of Bonnie And Clyde.

Here though we see the young, great western city of Los Angeles in that period with basic but expressive views of the city from Chinaski’s childhood home in what would become South Central (more recently somewhat of a ‘ghetto’ for the city’s black community, but then home of poor immigrants from the east) to the inner city area, now Downtown, rife with unemployment, dive bars, desperation and, it seems, characters even shadier than Chinaski.

Downtown Los Angeles c. 1930

Downtown Los Angeles c. 1930

In this the book finds its purpose, as it does what many writers who featured within the 20th Century ‘counterculture’ did in exploring the end of the so-called American Dream. Hunter S. Thompson posited its destruction or desecration in the late 1960s and early 70s with Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, for Ginsberg parts of it were lost in the 1940s and 50s as seen in Howl, while for Bukowski it seemed the dream died with the Great Depression.

There are of course arguments for all of these and more but Bukowski’s Chinaski seems to be a kind of living embodiment of this, no longer denying the end of the pioneer spirit that had typified the USA’s first century and a half and settling into a pattern of division and desperation that can still be seen today (coming to the fore even more so as I write in the build up to the 2016 election).

On top of all this the book is compelling to read flying along with a pace that captures childhood and growing up excellently, but rather than focussing on the idealised view usually seen in mass media, comes with a darker hue that may be extreme but is, if anything, potentially far more honest for it.

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