Banned Book Club double feature: Slaughterhouse-Five and Ham on Rye

I’ve fallen behind in my reporting of the Saskatoon Freethinkers and what we’re doing but I assure readers I’m still involved with the group and having fun with it. Some of the fun comes in the shape of our Banned Book Club. Anywhere from five to a dozen of us get together on a regular basis to talk about the month’s pick. We just finished discussing Charles Bukowski’s Ham on Rye last week but I neglected to write anything at all about Kurt Vonnegut’s classic from the time before so I’ll start there.

It’s been too long to remember what the group discussed about that one. I’d never read any Vonnegut before but some of the others were well versed in his work and the fact that he reused his characters sometimes, making each book a little bit connected rather than all stand-alones. Being unaware of that, I was set up from the get-go to assume Billy Pilgrim’s “time travel” experiences were probably all in his head, a result of post-war trauma mixed with the discovered love of Kilgore Trout’s weird science fiction novels. I read the book thinking his drifting between moments in his life (his capture in Dresden, illness, death of spouse, his own strange death etc.) was just him nearing the end of his life, completely unhinged and incapable of staying focused on the present. To learn that the Tralfamadorians appeared in other books kind of knocked my theory over.

Slaughterhouse-Five explores fate, free will, and the illogical nature of human beings. Protagonist Billy Pilgrim is unstuck in time, randomly experiencing the events of his life, with no idea of what part he will next visit (re-live) — so, his life does not end with death; he re-lives his death, before its time, an experience often mingled with his other experiences.

Billy Pilgrim says there is no free will, an assertion confirmed by a Tralfamadorian, who says, “I’ve visited thirty-one inhabited planets in the universe . . . Only on Earth is there any talk of free will.” The story’s central concept: most of humanity is insignificant; they do what they do, because they must.

To the Tralfamadorians, everything simultaneously exists, therefore, everyone is always alive. They, too, have wars and suffer tragedies (they destroy the universe whilst testing spaceship fuels), but, when Billy asks what they do about wars, they reply that they simply ignore them. The Tralfamadorians counter Vonnegut’s true theme: life, as a human being, is only enjoyable with unknowns.

So Pilgrim drifts through his life largely content, or at least accepting of the fact that life’s events are beyond his control. The same might be said of Bukowski’s character in the second book. Henry Chinaski grows up during the ’30s in Los Angeles, the only child of a poor and abusive father and a mother who tends to look the other way. He’s a loner who isn’t satisfied with the circle “friends” he finds himself in every school year but doesn’t seem to have any real desire to be like the rich and popular kids either. While he wants to be left alone, I think what he also wants is respect but doesn’t know the best way to go about getting it. He grows up under the weight of hideous acne besides and when he gets teased for that and other reasons, fighting is the first response that comes to mind. He’s a guy who can’t see much positive in his future, but knows he has to keep moving toward the future anyway. He’s not as confident as he could be, either. We see him do well playing ball and fighting (well enough to take up boxing as a career move, possibly) and seems to be prolific at writing (although picks strange things to write about) but none of those strengths are picked up and carried like they matter to him.

We kind of debated whether or not this made him a defeatist or realist. The Law of Success was published in 1928 but wasn’t one of the books Bukowski or the character modeled on him was drawn toward when spending time in the library. I think I wound up arguing that Henry was being realistic, that it didn’t necessarily matter how well he could play ball or fight or write if his circumstances weren’t going to bring him to a place where those skills would get noticed by others in a position to help him become successful at any of them. Then again, maybe he just didn’t want success enough to do the work required to achieve it. Same goes for a lot of people. Me included, I suppose.

Slaughterhouse-Five has been repeatedly challenged because of its profanity and sexual content. Same with Ham on Rye. My book group is made up of mostly men who totally recall what it was like to be young like Henry and his classmates, obsessed with the girls in their class or the sexy older women doing the teaching. They collectively guffawed over the scenes where the one boy masturbates in class every day as the teacher sits on her desk, apparently deliberately egging him on with her provocative pose and dress. They also liked the scene where Henry mistakes his teacher’s interest in him as sexual when the reality is she wanted to help him with his writing or something.

Both Vonnegut and Bukowski wrote these books using events from their own lives as the base. I think that gives the stories themselves a bit more weight than if they’d just invented places and people to fill them with. It makes me realize I should read more biographies or something. I tend to take work as it’s presented, without considering the history of the person who’s done the writing. Maybe I’d appreciate some books more if I knew more about the authors who created them.

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