b e a u t i f u l   l i e s

He's a man who tells simple stories that he finds somehow important, and when they bear repeating he repeats them—in his stories, poems, novels, and, one assumes, his conversations as well. Charles Bukowski understands the power in parable, that plain idea which cannot be expressed plainly. One of his most fundamental stories forms the centerpiece to this novel:

In the fifth grade, Bukowski (calling himself, as he often did in his stories, "Henry Chinaski") was, along with the rest of his class, asked to attend a speech by then-President Herbert Hoover and to compose an essay detailing the experience. He skipped the event, but did write a short piece describing how he imagined it would have been.

I turned in my essay on Monday. On Tuesday Mrs. Fretag faced the class. "I've read all you essays about our distinguished President's visit to Los Angeles. I was there. Some of you, I noticed, could no attend for one reason or another. For those of you who could no attend, I would like to read this essay by Henry Chinaski."
   . . . And she began to read my essay. The words sounded good to me. Everybody was listening. My words filled the room, from blackboard to blackboard, they hit the ceiling and bounced off, they covered Mrs. Fretag's shoes and piled up on the floor. Some of the prettiest girls in the class began to sneak glances at me. All the tough guys were pissed. Their essays hadn't been worth shit. . . .
   "Upon this grand note," said Mrs. Fretag, "I hereby dismiss the class . . ."
   They got up and began packing out.
   "Not you, Henry," said Mrs. Fretag.
   I sat in my chair and Mrs Fretag stood there looking at me.
   Then she said, "Henry, were you there?"
   I sat there trying to think of an answer. I couldn't. I said, "No, I wasn't there."
   She smiled. "That makes it all the more remarkable."
   "Yes ma'am . . ."
   "You can leave, Henry."
   I got up and walked out. I began to walk home. So, that's what they wanted: lies. Beautiful lies. That's what they needed. People were fools.

Now this is Bukowsi-primer time, because this right here is probably the most important episode in this novel and is presented as a sort of genesis for Bukowski's compulsion to write. Bukowski made a career of writing about drunkenness, rancid living quarters, and unappealing sex. He took liberties with chronology and names and even events, but he's quite accurately lumped in with the other modern-day autobiographical novelists, the Kerouacs and so on. And of all the respected writers of our time, I'd suppose none has written a body of work less likely to be called "beautiful lies" than he. Bukowski could not have written this passage unaware of this incongruity. Bukowski, after all, wrote Ham on Rye in 1982, at sixty-two years of age, and its stories spent nearly half-a-century in his mind prior to this telling.

One of the most popular questions about Bukowski is whether or not his narrator is a persona, whether he was exaggerating or baiting his audience or just disgorging his own earnest and embittered mind. It's passages like the above that are most enlightening in approaching this question. He knows more than he is telling. Far more. His work appears simple and straightforward and unassuming, and those who wish to dismiss him will find, just as they'd imagine, that Bukowski writes nothing more than blunt and shallow prose, not to mention his poetry. Others call him a genius for the very same reason, for writing so well on one level that many are unable to see at all beyond it.

h a m   o n   r y e

Ham on Rye is the novel of Charles Bukowski's childhood, his development and early adulthood. It begins, "The first thing I remember is being under something," and ends with a leave-taking a quarter-century later. Bukowski spends his youth in the center of the Great Depression in a Fascist American household with an abusive, inhuman father and a gracefully-submissive mother. He grows alienated from his peers first by his father's dictate, then by his own ineptitude at sports and other occupations, and finally due to a rash of enormous boils that cover his face and back and eventually leave him disfigured.

Later he would turn to libraries and writing and alcohol, but his initial escape from his loneliness is sexual. Much of the novel involves adolescent fantasies, obsession with women, and, of course, masturbation. Like all of his subjects, Bukowski approaches these with simple resignation and acceptance, unashamed, never gloating. He simply states.

Bukowski graduates high school, eventually, attends college for a while, is kicked out of his parents' home, and begins his lifelong quest for a way of living that requires as little work as possible and still provides a roof, a typewriter, and an adequate supply of beer. He makes "practice runs down to skid row," which he assumes will be his destination soon enough. By the mid-forties, he is peripherally aware that there is a war on—just enough to realize that he wants nothing to do with it.

The novel ends with a man, finally, unable to and uninterested in affecting his world or people or persons or anything, with no apparent future and no hopes beyond his own ability to live undisturbed. It ends as it begins, as it maintains throughout all its pages, in a tone of resignation at the burden of maintaining modern life.

s y n o p s i s

The story of a miserable childhood told in the first person and in excruciating detail should, in my opinion, hold its own literary genre. It pollutes the "fiction and literature" section of the book store, when, like "romance" or "mystery," its novels are defined by an expected set of conventions and archetypes and it provokes a certain filthy feeling of exploitation on the part of unsuspecting readers. But this is not one of those books. Charles Bukowski does not lament, he states. He tells a story, a simple story, and he also tells some deeply-cutting truths if you are willing to listen patiently and not squirm.

And to its place in the Literature of Buk: If a friend were to ask me where to start with Bukowski, this is the novel I'd hand him.

Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski
275 pages, Copyright © 1982 by Charles Bukowski
Black Sparrow Press
ISBN: 0-87685-558-3
ISBN: 0-87685-557-5 (Paperback)

The block quotation in this writeup is Copyright © by Charles Bukowski; permission to reproduce this excerpt has been requested, though no response has yet been received.

This writeup is CST Approved

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