A Bad Man Talks: Bukowski’s Ham on Rye, and Factotum
Don DeLillo is one of those novelists I ought to like. If you looked at the history of things I’ve read, you’d see plenty of his precursors and plenty of the people he influenced. I read White Noise when I was at university and absolutely loved it. It had all the things I like in fiction, like modern malaise and weirdo fictional drugs. So I wanted to read another. I tried Ameircana, and I hated it.
I hated the first fifty pages, anyway. It seemed to me to mostly be an awful man delineating just how awful he is, particularly towards women, with no sense of self awareness. Boring. Maybe it was the point and I missed it. There are places you can go on the internet if you wanna see people without an ounce of self awareness say awful things about women, you know? DeLillo’s gift for the image was still there but with none of the humanity about it. Pynchon was never that bad about women, apart from them always being strangely drawn to authoritarian figures. His own experience, perhaps. Bleeding Edge is largely about being a mother and watching your children grow up, and it was wonderful. The weird sex with shady government agents, not so much. I’m not old enough to understand, I guess.
I decided if I was gonna read novels where a man was being awful to women I’d read ones where at least the narrative voice is vaguely honest/self aware about it. Cue Bukowski, a bad man who wrote novels about bad men. (Note, before all this, I read The Handmaid’s Tale, so it was all something of a shock.) I’ve ended up reading Bukowski in reverse, starting with Post Office a few years ago, and a few weeks ago reading Factotum and then Ham on Rye. He really wasn’t very nice, but being an alcoholic will do that to you, and in fairness, many of the women he seems to mix with also aren’t the nicest. The appeal is the imagination of the uninhibited man, the free man. People prop up this idea with image macros featuring Bukowski’s more high minded lines, like “If you’re losing your soul and you know it, then you’ve still got a soul left to lose.” I present to you some more pure poetry:
“There was nothing really as glorious as a good beer shit – I mean after drinking twenty or twenty-five beers the night before. The odor of a beer shit like that spread all around and stayed for a good hour-and-a-half. It made you realize that you were really alive.”
It is pretty interesting to watch someone be (mostly, there is more than an element of myth making) honest. Bukowski writes about his bowel movements. He writes about the colour of his vomit, he writes about genital abnormalities. The other side of the coin is the use of honesty as a shield for bigotry. He claims he is not a misgonyst, and in his own time maybe that was true, but I don’t know a woman who’d give me the time of day if I said or did half the things Bukowski’s autobiographical stand-in, Chianski, said or did.
Factotum still works as a social document. It is almost composed of interconnected short stories, each one not normally more than a few pages, detailing his travels and the jobs he picks up, though as you’d guess by the chapter lengths, never for long. Chianski is one of those people who is genuinely hard done by, but at the same time never does himself any favours. You sympathise with his plight at the same time as you wonder why he isn’t just slightly more polite to his boss(es). The men who didn’t go to war didn’t go for a reason, and Bukowski’s document of their misfortunes, their fuckups, and their weirdness, is compelling in its vividness, its realness, even if you do begin to feel Chianski is exactly what many employers come to view him as; a smart ass with a big mouth.
Ham on Rye is by far the most personal of his novels that I’ve read and it’s stronger for it. As funny as tales of drinking and sexual misadventure are, it can get a bit samey, so a bildungsroman is a nice change of pace. A bildungsroman with lots of drinking and sexual misadventure, of course. The other novels make a lot more sense after reading this one. Chianski’s life is dominated by his abusive patriarch or a father. His slip and slide in to alcoholism and degeneracy is partly a means for him to get away physically and partly a means for him to set himself apart in terms of expectation. Bukowski really did have an awful childhood, at least according to this. Again, it’s hard to believe it is not partly myth making, but any attempt at fiction is myth making in one sense or another. One also gets the feeling the Bukowski wrote this novel in an attempt to change elements of the past, something that only makes it sadder. Chianski was a poor kid who went to a rough school and didn’t fit in and got shit for it, just like I did; I know what it’s like and I know what I was like. I know that I wasn’t apt to win fights quite as often as Chianksi did, or handle ostracisation as well as Chianski did. It made him what he is, and that’s reasonable, but I get the feeling, and it is just a feeling, that he recasts himself as a tough kid who handled it all (except his father, always the father) and came out the stronger for it as a means to reclaim some of the trauma he experienced. Which is fair enough. Fiction is therapy for a lot of us.
I’d been thinking about Bukowski’s prose style and thinking of Hemingway, just when Bukowski mentions reading Hemingway as a child and getting it. Or getting the prose style, anyway. I don’t think you can read A Farewell to Arms as a child and really understand it but maybe Bukowski could because the main message is that the universe is indifferent to your suffering, and it certainly seemed to be to his. I began to think of it like this. Hemingway’s theory was that of the iceberg, of a lot of the story being contained underneath the surface. Bukowski, I think, drains the sea, and shows you that iceberg is, in fact, a turd, and there wasn’t much substance underneath anyway.