Ham, Rye & Watermelons
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17-03-2012, 08:15 PM
Ham, Rye & Watermelons
I have sworn off books with "Rye" in the title. Bukowski's Ham on Rye was okay if you like angsty coming-of-age stories, but I was seriously disappointed with Salinger's Catcher in the Rye. What is it about that book that wound people up? To be honest, I can't even remember most of it except for the use of odd slang phrases ("gave her the time") and the scene near the end in which he gets depressed over not being able to erase all the obscene words from the walls of his sister's school. Other than that it's just him wandering around calling people phonies. At least in Ham on Rye we saw why Henry disliked these people. That is, Bukowski cleverly showed us Henry's reasons for disliking them. In Catcher, Holden simply says "they're phonies" without giving any kind of definition or reason why. So Holden Caulfield comes off as vaguely whiny. He can't even hold a place at prep school... for no reason other than he doesn't feel like it. What on earth does he have to complain about? We don't know. In Ham, Henry is a poet trapped in an insane family, an oaf's body and drudge's life. Meanwhile, Holden is malcontent but Salinger never gives us a reason for that either. The experience of reading Catcher feels like trying to swim but scraping your knees on a shallow concrete-bottomed waterway.

Don't misunderstand me: not everything has to be explained all the time. Some things "just are." I think Brautigan's In Watermelon Sugar exists for its own sake, for example. As best I can tell, Brautigan wrote it that way on purpose, so that you are an active participant in deciding what this thing is about. You don't decide for everyone. You decide for yourself. He explains this at the very first, when he writes about the narrator's name being something nebulous but very personal from the reader's own experience. "My name depends on you. Just call me whatever is in your mind. If you are thinking about something that happened a long time ago: Somebody asked you a question and you did not know the answer. That is my name... Perhaps it was a game that you played when you were a child or something that came idly into your mind when you were old and sitting in a chair near the window. That is my name." This gentle half-remembered dream is the point of the story so it's okay that nothing is explained. By the very nature of the thing, explaining it would ruin it. It's not that there's nothing to get, it's that you're helping to make it up.

Brautigan loved that kind of playful back-and-forth interaction. It crops up in Trout Fishing in America, in which Trout Fishing in America can be a man, a state of mind, a correspondence, a place, an action, a commodity, etc etc, different for each person. In Plant this Book, you're participating directly, with your actions. Or at least, he's asking you to. Someone made an interactive version of it, which you can play with here: http://www.pleaseplantthisbook.com/

At the end of Catcher, I wondered if there was anything to get. The story revolves around Holden's angst... and it's a very definite, concrete-bottomed sort of story so the reader isn't making it up too. I'm not very fond of this kind of story in general, but Bukowski's prose, his combination of earthy realism and metaphor was good enough to make Ham worth reading. Something deeper was there. Feel free to disagree, but Salinger's writing just isn't that good. I do not know what he was trying to say, even after thinking about it for quite some time, other than "phonies are bad."
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17-03-2012, 09:03 PM (This post was last modified: 17-03-2012 09:06 PM by craniumonempty.)
RE: Ham, Rye & Watermelons
I actually never read Catcher in the Rye, but meant to. What you critiqued the book on sounded like one of the most well known critiques of the book. I think, if I remember correctly that the book was about saving innocence. So the reason some people might have had the book when they did unspeakable things (there are a few famous times if I remember correctly) is because they are trying to be the "catcher in the rye" in that they are trying to preserve the innocence of the youth or something.

There was another book that I did read... uh, can't remember the name, but apparently caused people to burn down churches and it talked a lot about the bourgeois and I think the title reminded me of Wolfenstien for some reason. Either way, didn't make me want to burn down a church. I'm sure there was more to it as well (that was probably lost in translation), but didn't much care for it.

A theist and an atheist go to heaven.
theist: "See! There is a heaven."
atheist: "So, you consider heaven a joke too?"
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