Toward the end of his (Bukowski’s) autobiographical novel Ham on Rye, the narrator Henry has finally been able to leave his stifling and brutal home. He drops out of school, moves into a rundown rooming house, telling no one his new address, and spends his time drinking and bar fighting. When a friend tracks him down and pays him a call, Henry gives him a drubbing. In the final pages of the book, the hero sits in a bar while a patriotic fever, the result of the bombing of Pearl Harbor, rages outside and around him. Sullen and disconnected, he tries to ignore the hurricane of feelings, which do not in the slightest way penetrate into his personal hell.
Thus, the book may be called something of an anti-bildungsroman. Traditionally, such coming of age stories chronicle how the protagonist ends, after a number of false starts, by finding a place in the world and becoming a well-integrated member of society. Ham on Rye shows the hero, by the end, finding his place precisely outside society. Furthermore, it is from this vantage, alienated from and disgusted with almost everything around him, except for his fellow outcasts among the whores, deadbeats, and those, like him, stuck at dead-end jobs, that he was able to create his art and his image.
However, if the final image of Bukowski (as he depicted himself in his poems) was that of a world-weary proletarian, a lone wolf who had cut both his ties and his moorings, Ham on Rye, as much as it can be read autobiographically, documents how such a man comes to be produced through molding forces over which, when he is young, he has little control.
In the novel, Henry’s rugged individualism and disdain for society are stylizations of his father’s misanthropy. “My father didn’t like people. He didn’t like me” (16). And — for Bukowski’s grasp of how character is formed doesn’t stop there — the father’s own personality is revealed as partly developed in reaction to the times. During the Depression, the father is too proud to let his neighbors know he has lost his job, and so each day he drives off as if he were reporting to work. To keep up this front, he cannot allow neighbors to get too close.
Keep in mind, this individual pathology was a widespread during that dark period. In Studs Terkels’ book of interviews concerning the Depression, one informant tells this story, talking about his father’s resentful anger,
This short temper was a characteristic of the time. Men who were willing to work couldn’t find work. My father was the kind of man who had to be active. He’d invent work for himself. A child who was playing irritated him. It wasn’t just my own father. They all got shook up. (Hard Times, 120)
Moreover, because the father is trying to make it appear that his family is above those around him, whose fathers are unemployed and on relief, Henry is kept from playing with the riffraff and, when he is old enough, sent to a upper middle class high school far from where he lives. This is a social disaster since he lacks the wherewithal to fit in with his peers. “Those rich guys [at the high school] like to dart their cars in and out. ... [Y]ou just saw them burning more rubber, gunning from the curb with their cars full of squealing and laughing girls. I watched them with 50 cents in my pocket. I didn’t even know how to drive a car” (154–155). A disfiguring illness that pockmarks his face while he is in his teens caps the alienation by making it even harder to compete for girls against his well-heeled fellow students.
Just as Winans curves around Bukowski in presenting his (stealth) autobiography, so Bukowski curves around his father and other impinging forces in creating his (novelized) autobiography.
It’s worth adding that in many of his poems Bukowski plays even more flagrantly with the paradoxes of the fractured self.
Take his powerful “remains” from The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over the Hills. It concerns the death of an old girl friend and begins:
things are good as I’m not dead yet
and the rats move in the beercans ...
and her photographs are stuck onto a painting
by a dead German and she too is dead
and it took 14 years to know her
and if they give me another 14
I will know her yet ... (65)
The message is this: I’m glad to be alive and healthy, so I’ll have many years to think about the dead. Perversely enough, thinking about his lost love does not involve recollecting happy memories; but, rather, considering missed opportunities. As he listens to his tape recordings of her, he thinks, “she speaks some evenings ... says the thousand things,// the one thing I always ignored” (65). He wants to go back over her words and his memories in order to locate all the nuances and hidden meanings he missed when she was alive.
Can the reader miss the ironic and tragicomic handling of the truth that his (or his persona’s) life can be viewed as a byproduct of someone else’s existence since he seems to be planning to arrange it around that person’s memory?
Still, to return to Winans, we could say his stance lacks the nobility of Bukowski’s position. Where the poet of “remains” is representing his self effacement as part of the mourning process, Winans’ fixation on Bukowki’s seems more opportunistic. Yet, to refine a point already made, the payoffs in Winans’ decentered autobiography in terms of engrossing incidents and strong writing are many. Impossible as it is in reality, it is almost as if Winans knew in advance he could only tell the world about the parts of his life that Bukowski approved by responding to them by letter, so Winans had to live life to the hilt to get the “old man’s” attention.
Moreover, to further a point already made, the way the author’s relation to Bukowski, events in his own life, and his own poetry (smuggled in at every turn) have to be integrated into one readable storyline gives a complexity to the tale lacking in many a less vexed memorial. What Winans does not often obtain, something more commonly present in Bukowski, is a linking of the self to relevant, molding historical circumstances. This was shown when, in Ham on Rye, Henry’s disenchantment at the book’s close took place as a countermovement to the swamping outpouring of American jingoism.
It is not necessarily the case that the braiding together of these two dimensions: self and other plus self as a component of a historically charged situation, will make for better writing, although it will certainly be richer than that which takes up less complex materials. Nonetheless, the most satisfying sections of Winans’ memoir are those in which he has integrated these two dimensions.
There is his break with COSMEP, for instance, which comes to a head at Houston at the same convention where, as noted, he inaugurated his love affair with JW. In describing the showdown, Winans explains that the organization of small publishers that made up the COSMEP membership had come together because “major bookstore chains refused to stock small press books and magazines” (115). The few that did “would only stock their books on consignment, and payment was more often than not slow or non-existent” (115). Conceived at a 1968 gathering, the original organization had a distinctly grassroots flavor. “The membership was made up mostly of radical thinking small press people who fought to promote small press publications in opposition to the established academic monopoly of literature” (114).
By the mid-1970s, however, when Winans went to the Houston meeting, COSMEP “began to be co-opted into the system through grants” from the NEA and other agencies (115). It grew dependent on government and foundation cash rather than on members’ money. “COSMEP was now feeding at the public trough,” and sell-outs and compromises with commercialism were driving away the founders, who began resigning one by one (116). Winans came to Houston near ready to join his friends in chucking the whole business.
What leavens this sad story is the counterpoint of Winans’ emergent love affair. Add to the scandal of COSMEP members prostituting themselves with granting agencies, the scandal of JW and Winans humping away. The attendees are all living cheek to jowl in student dorms whose walls could use some sound proofing. Winans states, “We made so much noise making love that we were the talk of the publishing conference” (114). Not only do the couple’s outrageous actions allow Winans to relieve some of the tension he feels at the uptight conference, but they bring him see that he should focus his energy on what really matters to him. As he writes in a poem commemorating his break with the COSMEP, literary spats, no matter how righteous, do not offer much to the libido.
They play taps
At Arlington Cemetery
In the name
Of national pride
But it takes
Flesh and bone
To breathe electricity
Into a man’s balls (122)
Moreover, JW not only revives his sense of reality but stokes his resolution. “No matter how I might feel about JW, I do owe her a debt of gratitude for helping me see I was wasting my time serving on the COSMEP Board of Directors” (114).
Before concluding the look at this incident, it might be useful to give this component of the discussion more of a theoretical basis. The way a “self” is defined in counterpoint to another self has been grounded in an interpretation of Derrida. How the self or, in our example, a pair of lovers, are structured by the community they are part of calls for a different under-layer.
Jean-Luc Nancy in The Inoperative Community explains this correlation in striking if somewhat abstract terms, “In the instant the lovers are shared [that is, become intimate in all senses of the term] ... the singularity of their love is exposed to community” (39) Which is to say, for instance, that the process of falling in love, which involves each of the partners in being exposed to the other’s full nature, simultaneously exposes each to previously unrevealed aspects of their community. What is typically exposed are the community’s drawbacks as a setting for intimacy. “Lovers expose above all the unworking of the community. Unworking is what they show in their communal aspect and intimacy. But they expose it to the community, which already shares their intimacy” (40). For Nancy, the community is in all cases a failed attempt at harmony and mutuality, just as in their most intimate moments (as “remains” illustrated), lovers expose to each other their most basic trait, their mortality.
In closing, let’s return to the lover’s triangle. The fact that JW encouraged Winans to live up to his political conscience can add to our understanding of his later sense of betrayal when Bukowski gets caught up in the mix. It appears now that as Winans sees it, JW is not only betraying him in their relationship by running to Buk, but betraying the ideals she helped foster in him when he broke with COSMEP by dallying with Bukowski simply because he is a literary celebrity who might advance her career.
In this light, a full appreciation of the San Francisco ménage a trois takes us beyond the earlier view, which saw Winans taking a minor part in his own life, and portrays how he trumps his fate. For if, in a certain perspective, Bukowski and JW were the central figures in the romance, Bukowski and Winans meet when it comes to the ability to remain unsullied by literary politics. As the memoirist portrays it, for both of them, but not JW, writing is an act of total truth to “self” without pretension, posing or lies. Both rely on this formula, while surreptitiously acknowledging the self is not what it seems to be, but is an amalgam of person, other, and community. This is so much so that Winans composes his own (stealth) autobiography around somebody else, though, at the end, trumping this limitation, by making that somebody (Buk) a man after his own (Winans’) image.
Thus, the yield from Winans’ book is a great and indirectly profound. And we might add, profundity is never direct.