You might think that writing a book with Charles Bukowski is redundant. Bukowski’s own fiction is basically autobiography, in which his alter-ego Henry Chinaski works at the post office, sleeps with groupies, makes a movie, has a childhood, and so on. You might think that, but you’d be wrong about Mr. Bukowski’s Wild Ride because of two things:
1. It’s written in the third person, not the first person.
2. This is like no book Bukowski ever wrote.
The book puts Bukowski in touch with people from his lifetime, both fictional and not, and how he’d react to them – Popeye’s grandchild, Pinocchio, Joe Camel. This is like what Henry Chinaski dreams about. Short, flash vignettes that’ll keep you reading. You won’t stop once you’ve started it. An excerpt from his meeting with Walt Disney:
Bukowski watched as Disney swayed on his feet. The old bugger is definitely in the bag, he thought. Best to remain quiet until this madness ends.
“I envision a new form of animation, Mr. Bukowski. Animated fare for adults only…I’m looking at a story that involves pimps and whores, grifters and boozers, gamblers and sinners, except instead of people they’d be represented by furry little woodland creatures or something like that. The animation guys will figure it out.”
It’s just crazy enough to work. Even though there’s an undercurrent of ridiculousness to the book, it also gets to the soul of the man. Because even though he’s thought of as an angry drunk – by people who don’t know his writing – he’s actually a very funny writer, hence the title, Ham on Rye. He’s angry, bitter at times, but he’s never morose, he’s just got a good bullshit detector. And this is a book about bullshit detection.
Bukowski saw “ordinary madness” everywhere, and hanging out with Popeye isn’t any more mad than all the other ordinary lunatics that populate Bukowski’s Los Angeles. And after all, he’s like a fictional character himself- part Charles Bukowski, part Henry Chinaski, part literary legend. So hanging out with Popeye seems perfectly natural. That’s why the book works: it’s both mad and normal at once and really feels like you’re viewing these situations through Bukowski’s eyes, while being as funny as any of Bukowski’s own writing.
From the introduction by David Barker:
“As a college student, I knew Charles Bukowski back in the 1970s, talked to him in kitchens and barrooms, watched as he madly partied…I came away with a strong sense of the physical and spiritual being behind the legend…I think the real Charles Bukowski would have secretly delighted in these stories.”
I’ll admit, I like the story best that’s the least over the top – about him meeting Gig Young (who I had to look up), which is more like something that could’ve happened in his life. Just two men talking at a bar. Overall, this is like reading a strange biography of Bukowski (and I’ve read biographies of Bukowski, letters collections, all his fiction, etc.), in which you get a real sense of how he breathed and moved. Another piece to add to his towering myth.
I could see a whole series of books like this: Hemingway, Kerouac, Henry Miller – writers who are as interesting to read about as read by. If anything, I wish there was more in this fairly slim volume. The possibilities are endless: Charles Bukowski gets in a bar fight with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Charles Bukowski writes speeches for Richard Nixon, Charles Bukowski is pursued by Karen Black. I feel like writing it myself.
In short, if you love Bukowski, you’ll love this. A totally unique take on the man that he probably wouldn’t have had the gall to write himself. And he had a lot of gall.
Check out Rodger Jacobs online:
Carver’s Dog, his blog about L.A. literary life, one of the better writer/publisher blogs you’ll find.
His Lulu book on the Wonderland murders – one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever seen is the police footage that comes at the end of the DVD of “Wonderland,” starring Val Kilmer.
Trace Publications, which puts out this bookAll SPR Book Reviews Are Sponsored