What Would Maxim Gorky Do?
ISBN: 1 841951 633
I really love Charles Bukowski. Obviously, I never met him in person, but his writing speaks to me in a way that not many others do. His poetry especially is very beautiful; fragile and brash, it’s kind of an enigma. I actually didn’t even know he wrote novels for ages (I know, right? Good researching there…), but I’m sure glad that I found that little treasure out. It’s hard to say exactly what I love so much about his writing – I mean, it’s certainly not the kind of thing you could recommend to just anyone, not the kind of thing you’d rock up to your Nana’s book club with (unless your Nana is down with a liberal literary splashing about of the really bad c-word). I’d kind of see him as being a kind of spiritual antecedent to a writer like Irvine Welsh – someone who just can’t seem to let their past be, who has to keep worrying at it like an old dog.
This particular Cannongate edition has an introduction by Roddy Doyle. And, okay, full disclosure, I’ve never read one of his books. Yes, I know, cultural ignoramus, but I’ll rectify that – it’s easily rectifiable. I hardly ever read introductions, but I read this one, for some strange reason, maybe because it begins with Bukowski’s own words, the dedication from his first novel Post Office, which incidentally is also a Hank Chinaski novel. In the dedication, Doyle talks about Bukowski’s writing style, and he puts it much better than I do, so I’m just going to quote verbatim:
“What writing, I thought. It wasn’t just the words that made this a tough, real world. It was the awkwardness of the writing, its closeness to speech. ‘…and so I went and the next thing I knew I had this leather sack on my back.’ So you went where? And what happened then? And then? … It reminded me of kids telling me about a video, charging through the plot of a ninety-minute film in less than thirty seconds; arms, head and shoulders supplying the action and special effects. It had the same rush, the same fight for attention.” p. viii
It’s that ‘fight for attention’ that makes Ham on Rye such a compelling read. The whole thing reads like a fight, but a beautiful fight, not choreographed or tamed in any way, brutal sometimes, funny others.
Hank Chinaski is a recurring character – as mentioned, he crops up first of all in Post Office, and again in Factotum. It’s not until Ham on Rye that we get full instruction on Hank’s younger years. He’s still known as Henry, not Hank, and is growing up during the Depression. I always find that kind of interesting, the way people decide to be one name over another when they grow older – almost like a casting off of skin; or perhaps in Hank/Henry’s case, a casting out of demons and a choosing of new ones. Anyway, obviously the principle character is Henry, so it’s told from his perspective – he’ll frequently describe himself as deformed, ugly, and almost seems surprised and suspicious when people are nice to him. People are seldom nice to him though, so it’s not a state of affairs you see very often.
From his very earliest memories of observing the adults around him – one of the young Henry’s early recollections, for instance, is his grandmother telling his folks at the dinner table “I will bury you all!” – they seem hell-bend on displaying to him some of the worst behaviour possible. His father is described by Henry as…, and his mother, as the book goes on, becomes more and more a simple cipher, just a ghost of a character. In fact, his mother shrinks in importance as her obvious pandering to his fathers temper grows. The growing hatred between the Henrys, Junior and Senior, becomes almost an occassion for this kind of obsessionist language, perhaps to indicate that at the time, it was a situatuion with no visible escape for the younger, when all he could seemingly do was reject all that his father held dear – the idea of a full time, well paying job, rising up in the ranks of society, etcetera, etcetera. Which of course, kept on bringing me back to the dedication of this book – ‘To all the fathers’, which I don’t know this could be me just reading way too much into it, but all the fathers that Chinaski/Bukowski had, all the fathers (and mothers) that we all have, that we learn from, grow away from and finally reject.
Phew, that got a little Freudian for a minute there.
Anyway, one of my favourite parts in Ham on Rye is where Hank discovers the treasures ensconced at his local library, specifically the La Cienega Public Library (which must have changed it’s name since his day, because I can’t find it in this list). The librarian, rather ravishingly, is described as “class. About 38 but with pure white hair pulled tightly into a bun behind her neck… I felt that she knew everything.” (p. 164) There are also some beautiful descriptions of the young Hank (and I’d imagine, the young Charles) discovering some of the giants of literature – Sinclair, Hemingway, Lawrence, Steinbeck, et al. He seems to be especially enamoured with the Russian group, Gorky and Turgenev, who is described as “…a very serious fellow, but he could make me laugh because a truth first encountered can be very funny. When someone else’s truth is the same as your truth, and he seems to be saying it just for you, that’s great.” (p. 166)
Would I recommend Ham on Rye? It might be good as a starting point, if you’ve never read any Bukowski before. I am not in that camp, however, so I’d have to say that if you’re not a person that enjoys frankness, or rawness, perhaps steer clear. One of the things that I love about Bukowski’s writing is that he never really glamourises the hardships that he’s endured; it’s stated, but not dwelt upon or wallowed in. In a weird way, he sometimes reminds me of Orwell, specifically Down and Out in Paris and London. So, if you like that sort of thing, then you’ll probably like this one too.