Reading Bukowski: ‘Post Office’ and ‘Ham on Rye’

When I get into an author, I tend to do it thoroughly.

I read a selection of Bukowski’s writing about writing a few weeks ago and was awakened by his tart, easy, often very precise voice. Then a friend lent me ‘Ham on Rye’, a novel based on Bukowski’s early life, with a warning not to read it if I felt low. I took it on holiday, heeded the warning, and ended up instead pulled his first novel ‘Post Office’ down to my Kindle and swung through that in 24 hours.

I found the same easy, down to earth style that Bukowski himself characterised as ‘honest’ about the world. It’s a world of the Depression, of dead end jobs, fleeting relationships, violence, oppression of the poor, and always, always, alcohol. If that makes Post Office sound depressing, then I speak him wrong. It’s witty and sarcastic. Black humour was made for Bukowski. The plotting is loose, and the structure straightforward. There is deep pathos, albeit with a rickety final third of episodic wanderings. I learned a lot about fluidity of prose.

And so last night when I got home from holiday tired and wanting to hide from the world, I pulled out ‘Ham on Rye’. It’s a later novel, with the same protagonist as ‘Post Office’, and dealing with his earlier life. This chronology gives the strange impression that Bukowski’s writing deteriorated as he wrote through Hank’s life – which is to say that the writing in ‘Ham on Rye’ is mostly very good indeed.

There’s no fanfare about the use of a young child’s under-the-table point of view in the opening paragraphs – it’s matter-of-fact, as Bukowski seems always to be. And it’s that straightforwardness that gives the emotional weight to the violence that follows. And here’s the thing: written by many writers, the switches into violence and out to innocence would clearly be planned, structured, precisely placed into order to give the maximum effect.

That’s how I would have written this. I would be too deliberate, too artistic as a result. Because in Bukowski at what I’ve seen of his best, the narrative feels entirely natural with no artistic forethought at all. That is not to say he didn’t plan and aim for effect. I have no doubt that he did, despite his famously fast writing style and refusal to edit his work. It is instead to say that every bit of artifice is entirely hidden in the loose first person ramblings of an adolescent who became a violent drunk in a brutal world.

As it happens I’m currently writing in the first person about a drunk, albeit a non-violent one and in a less brutal world. So I hope some of Bukowski’s fluidity has worn off.


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