Ham on Rye is a volume of the fictional autobiography of Henry Chinaski, Bukowski's alter ego. It covers the years between his birth in 1920 until Pea...moreHam on Rye is a volume of the fictional autobiography of Henry Chinaski, Bukowski's alter ego. It covers the years between his birth in 1920 until Pearl Harbor. My paperback version had 283 pages and 58 chapters (about 85,000 words). A little less than five pages per chapter. Each chapter is a short story (a little under 1500 words each). The stories are related and in chronological order.
First and foremost, Bukowski writes flawless prose (Hemingway-esque, straight forward, short sentences). He tries to make each story interesting. I call them stories, but they are reminiscences (as appropriate to autobiography) in which the narrator explains what happened, how it made him feel, and what he did in response. It is difficult to believe that he could pull this off 58 times in a row, but he does, mostly.
I am prompted to a short digression here. At some point, during our younger days, the short story died. Raymond Carver and others are credited with reviving it in the 1980's. Raymond Carver wrote good prose. I read 300 pages of Carver and found little to quibble with. I also found little of interest. His stories, by and large, were slices of life; they started off someplace and ended up somewhere else. They were subtle. They were too subtle. If the short story was indeed revived, it was only in the desiccated brains and crusted hearts of academics.
Bukowski expended the imagination and effort to make his stories interesting. He eschews subtlety while still, somehow, retaining it. He embraces adolescent fantasy (well, it does cover Chinaski's adolescent years, so he gets a by here). Young Chinaski is boorish, violent, ignorant, unsophisticated, ugly and repellant. Bukowski has Chinaski make the case for him (Chinaski) as best he can. He lies, rationalizes and excuses - but after all, these are the standard tools of autobiography. He succeeded in making the essentially uninteresting interesting. Carver et. al. could have learned something there.(less)
This is the first Conroy I've read and the first thing I noticed was the prose...moreThree stars? Isn't that a bit harsh?
Well, yes. Make it three and a half.
This is the first Conroy I've read and the first thing I noticed was the prose; that wonderful, flowery prose, a languid eddy in a wistful dream of dark waters.
See what I did there? You'll see it in all the better reviews of this novel; it's infectious. Pretty soon we're all writing like Pat Conroy. He has some favorite constructions.
"She looked upon the keys as the talismans and ciphers of her dilemma, her undeclared war with herself."
In the next paragraph:
"The room smelled of excrement and ammonia, the corrupt and familiar bouquet that debases each long hour of the insane, the essential defining characteristic of the mental hospital, American style."
Note "...the talismans and ciphers..." in the first example and "...the corrupt and familiar..." in the second. He does this frequently. I merely opened the book at random and pulled them out.
He has other constructions of cheerful sorrow, and after a while you find yourself imitating those as well, such is the lusting power of his prose.
But I began to have doubts. Remember my first example? "...her undeclared war with herself." The narrator is referring to his twin sister Savanna who has cut her wrists in yet another unsuccessful suicide attempt. It would seem to me that war had been declared long ago. Conroy never met an adjective he didn't like, even if it doesn't always make sense.
And not everything makes sense. Lowenstein, the brilliant psychologist and love interest, relates some of Savanna's delusional ramblings which includes the name 'Agnes Day' whereupon our narrator launches into a long story and within this story appear the words 'Agnis Dei'. At this point everyone who is still awake has made the super-obvious connection. But not Lowenstein and it's like teaching quantum mechanics to a mule.
At the end of chapter four, my opinion of Lowenstein is that she is at once condescending, patronizing and stupid. I'm already falling in love with her. Sure.
And don't get me started on the story. At first you think it's all about some dreadful family secret (it is, sort of, maybe) and I for one love this stuff. Think Eugene O'Neill or Tennessee Williams. Nearly every play Williams wrote had a big reveal of some awful secret that finally made sense of everything. Hey, so I'm ready. I'm in the mood.
And there are hints, lots of hints that neither the narrator nor Savanna knows the WHOLE truth. I keep turning the pages in anticipation, my heart in my throat, my breath bated.
And all the stories of Savanna's delusional gibberish are told. And a few more for good measure. The commonplace misfortunes, the deplorable, the fantastic, the beyond fantasy, and the beyond the beyond. Soon the story becomes self parody. And it goes on and on and on. But I'm still amused by the prose, so I'm still reading.
After six hundred pages I start to skim a little bit because I'm near the end and I want Conroy to wrap this baby up. And he does...like a Christmas turkey, lambent and succulent.
But it turns out there are no secrets. Our narrator knew everything all along without so much as a 'Hey, I almost forgot that'. And, entirely as an afterthought, Savanna gets better. But in fairness, the story was never really about Savanna; it was about our narrator all along and his journey from 'screwed up' to 'somewhere else'.
Okay, I'm done being a smart ass. To be fair, Conroy has decent characterization, a wonderful writing voice, and a great sense of place (worth reading for that alone).
Don't worry too much about the story, just enjoy the ride. I did.
I gave it three stars, but it's really more like 2.5. Why?
The story turns out to be rather disappointing, there are unforgivable lapses in characteriz...moreI gave it three stars, but it's really more like 2.5. Why?
The story turns out to be rather disappointing, there are unforgivable lapses in characterization (e.g. Laurie), and there is too much padding (The Black Freighter and various prose sections).
The story starts out as a mystery. Who's killing costumed heroes and why? This allows Moore to examine the nature of the genre. What kind of idiot would dress up in an outlandish costume and act as a vigilante? Good question and there is no way the answer could be flattering. Moore capitalizes on this insight.
Alan Moore discovered he only had enough material for six comics, but he was contracted for twelve. This drove him to provide back stories for his costumed heroes and enhance characterization. A very good thing to do, but he was not as successful at it as this reader would have wished.
Ozymandias is the smartest man in the world, but he is merely a cypher. His back story is rushed, his motives are simplistic at best. He knows (somehow) that his desperate ploy for peace will work and that we will see the parallels with Truman's decision to drop the A-bomb on Japan. Hmmm.
However, the only entity really capable of that decision is Dr. Manhattan because he actually knows the future (give or take some convenient tachionic interference). And I must say that the way Moore reveals/describes Dr Manhattan's simultaneous existence in the past, present, and future was masterful. But Dr Manhattan is himself a cypher. He loses interest in humanity because people wrongly think he causes cancer and then teleports himself to Mars. Doesn't he know that it is Ozymandias behind it all? Arrgh. And then Laurie convinces him (by crying, throwing up, who knows really?) that humanity does matter. So off they go to rescue humanity from some ghastly vision foreseen by Dr Manhattan. But by the time Dr. Manhattan figures everything out, he has become bored by humanity and wants to go play god in a galaxy far, far away. Go figure.
And don't mention Laurie whose only purpose is to be weepy and feminine. She fails utterly to convince anyone that she could be a costumed heroine.
For Rorsach, Moore uses the kid from a broken home cliche. Yawn.
I kind of liked The Comedian who makes a rather ambiguous hero, but who knows what could have motivated him.
And so it goes.
And the padding. The Black Freighter is entirely superfluous. It is told with constant interruptions by the newsstand guy whose comments themselves are largely superfluous to the story.
About halfway through, I was getting bored. The last half was a bit of an effort. And then to get this unbelievable/inconsistent storyline centering on Ozymandias. Ay carumba!
But.... Moore made his characters human with all the flaws that entails and the first half was a bit grittier than typical comic book fare (from my own meager knowledge of the genre). So, 2.5 stars. A bit overrated.
Keely has a great five star review of Watchmen. If I understand him correctly he makes the case that is revolutionary for the genre considering what had gone before. On that basis, I can only conclude that what had gone before must have been very unsatisfying indeed.(less)