A typical sandwich, an atypical author: Stranger than Fiction

Posted by Hunter Prichard

Every so often, when I become bored with the general grind of school, I return to the work of American author Charles Bukowski.

Although he was not an author widely noted by the American academic world as a genuine "writer," his work (nearly 80 volumes of poetry and prose) has been devoured by younger generations.

He wrote of dead-end jobs in terrible places like slaughterhouses and pickle company factories that involved the masculine, bravado character of Hank Chinanski (an alias for himself) in stories of desperation, alcohol abuse and violence.

No job lasted for more than a few weeks. He was always in motion. His nights were spent with a few bottles of wine at his desk. He wrote three or four short stories a week. Sometimes he would go out to a bar and pick up a prostitute or go off, rub someone the wrong way and get into a fistfight.

How did he get like this?

The answer is "Ham on Rye," Bukowski's memoir of his childhood.

It is his best work. It is a book that should be read by everyone who has ever lived a day on earth. Unfortunately, it is not required in high school. As high school students struggle through the cryptic prose of Faulkner and Virginia Woolf, they do not realize that "the world" can be explained in simpler ways.

It chronicles the author's first 20-odd years on earth, from his "first memory" as a child in Germany, to his growing up as a reclusive, deprived, abused child in America (he was brought over at the age of 2).

Bukowski was beaten nearly every day by his father from the age of 5 to 11 and he had his first alcoholic drink at the age of 13. Alcohol would come to manipulate the plot of his own life.

Although he came from a meager background, his parents still sent him to one of the wealthier Los Angeles high schools. They wanted their son to be perceived as wealthy. Stuck in between the rich boys and girls, he was an island.

To make matters worse, at the age of 15, he was struck with a scarring form of acne. Boils covered his entire body. The boils embellished his feelings of loneliness and fear. He was taken out of school and sent to the charity ward of the local hospital for daily treatments.

While in treatment, he fell in love with the older nurse who worked on him – she was the first person who showed him actual love.

Bukowski found new life in the Los Angeles Public Library in the books of D.H. Lawrence, Upton Sinclair and Ernest Hemingway. He began writing stories.

His first stories were of the adventures of a famous war hero, a pilot named Baron Von Himmlen who was admired by all people. He added another addiction – writing.

As he writes in his memoir: "it made me feel good to write about the Baron. A man needed somebody. There wasn't anybody around so you had to make up somebody, make him up to be like a man should be."

Bukowski was destined for a life as far removed from his generation as possible.

His stories soon crossed into wildness and debauchery. Earlier stories and drawings were found by his father and ripped to shreds. The drawings were of topless women and the stories were of perverse intention.

He left home soon after and roamed the country from LA to Philadelphia through Miami, Texas and back to California.

What is important to take note of about this journey throughout the country were his intentions on carrying through with it. This is not a man who has the freedom of a Kerouac or Cassidy. He does not go out for the adventure; he goes because he has nowhere else to go.

The title of the novel comes from the typical American sandwich that the typical American worker brings for his lunch everyday at his typical American job.

His father had one of these typical American jobs. The title is an inside joke. The only life that the author wanted to have was to never be a part of the American system, the nine - to - five days, and the houses in suburbia . . . everything that he grew up with and around he wanted to throw away.

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