Top 20 Books, #15
Those who know me know that I was a huge Bukowski fan in the late '80s and early '90s. I still like Bukowski, but am no longer avidly awaiting the next volume of his posthumous poems.
Poetry aside, as poetry is where Bukowski made his biggest mark, he also wrote some great fiction, as well.
In fact, many critics of Buk bemoan the fact that his poems aren't really poems, but prose pieces broken into poetic lines. But this is not about that argument.
Bukowski's first novel Post Office, showed people that he could write longer fiction that his short stories which found their way into underground newspapers and dirty magazines in the late '60s and early '70s.
To me, however, his crowning achievement in fiction came in the form of Ham on Rye.
I realize that, when discussing books #20-16, I could have, should have included an excerpt to illustrate the text. So here's a memorable passage from this novel, based on the author's life growing up in Depression Los Angeles:
One day Mrs. Fretag gave us an assignment.
"Our distinguished President, President Herbert Hoover, is going to visit Los Angeles this Saturday to speak. I want all of you to go hear our President. And I want you to write an essay about the experience and about what you think of President Hoover's speech."
Saturday? There was no way I could go. I had to mow the lawn. I had to get the hairs. (I could never get all the hairs.) Almost every Saturday I got a beating with the razor strop because my father found a hair. (I also got stropped during the week, once or twice, for other things I failed to do or didn't do right.) There was no way I could tell my father that I had to go see President Hoover. So,I didn't go.
That Sunday I took some paper and sat down to write about how I had seen the President. His open car, trailing flowing streamers, had entered the football stadium. One car, full of secret service agents, went ahead and two cars followed close behind. The agents were brave men with guns to protect our President. The crowd rose as the President's car entered the arena. There had never been anything like it before. It was the President. It was him. He waved. We cheered. A band played. Seagulls circled overhead as if they too knew it was the President. And there were skywriting airplanes too. They wrote words in the sky like "Prosperity is just around the corner."
The President stood up in his car, and just as he did the clouds parted and the light from the sun fell across his face. It was almost as if God knew too. Then the cars stopped and our great President, surrounded by secret service agents, walked to the speaker's platform. As he stood behind the microphone a bird flew down from the sky and landed on the speaker's platform near him. The President waved to the bird and laughed and we all laughed with him. Then he began to speak and the people listened.
I couldn't quite hear the speech because I was sitting too near a popcorn machine which made a lot of noise popping the kernels, but I think I heard him say that the problems in Manchuria were not serious, and that at home everything was going to be all right, we shouldn't worry, all we had to do was to believe in America. There would be enough jobs for everybody. There would be enough dentists with enough teeth to pull, enough fires and enough firemen to put them out. Mills and factories would open again. Our friends in South America would pay their debts. Soon we would all sleep peacefully, our stomachs and our hearts full. God and our great country would surround us with love and protect us from evil, from the socialists, awaken us from our national nightmare, forever...
The President listened to the applause, waved, then went back to his car, got in, and was driven off followed by carloads of secret service agents as the sun began to sink, the afternoon turning into evening, red and gold and wonderful. We had seen and heard President Herbert Hoover.
I turned in my essay on Monday. On Tuesday Mrs. Fretag faced the class. "I've read all your essays about our distinguished President's visit to Los Angeles. I was there. Some of you, I noticed, could not attend for one reason or another. For those of you who could not attend, I would like to read this essay by Henry Chinaski."
The class was terribly silent. I was the most unpopular member of the class by far. It was like a knife slicing through all their hearts.
"This is very creative," said Mrs. Fretag, 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. I drank in my words like a thirsty man. I even began to believe them. I saw Juan sitting there like I'd punched him in the face. I stretched out my legs and leaned back.
All too soon it was over.
"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 my walk home. So, that's what they wanted: lies. Beautiful lies. That's what they needed. People were fools. It was going to be easy for me. I looked around. Juan and his buddy were not following me. Things were looking up.
Bukowski's prose flows naturally. It is not flowerly or academic. He does not take on airs and writes about our most base functions in a matter-of-fact way. He can be crude, but he can also be eloquent while speaking in the language of everyday life. Ham on Rye is pure Bukowski at his best, and his descriptions of Los Angeles, like John Fante's, are powerful and moving. Knowing this book is autobiographical also helps newcomers to Bukowski crawl into his head and get an idea of why he is who he is.