Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski
In what is widely hailed as the best of his many novels, Charles Bukowski details the long, lonely years of his own hardscrabble youth in the raw voice of alter ego Henry Chinaski. From a harrowingly cheerless childhood in Germany through acne-riddled high school years and his adolescent discoveries of alcohol, woman, and the Los Angeles Public Library’s collection of D.H. Lawrence, Ham on Rye offers a crude, brutal, and savagely funny portrait of an outcast’s coming-of-age during the desperate days of the Great Depression.
How to buy it: Paperback $19.99
When can I get my hands on it: Now!
What am I in for: Non-Fiction, memoir, self hate, alcoholism, teenage sexual frustration, childhood abuse
My oh my! Charles Bukowski is both self loathing and simultaneously narcissistic, which is a pretty difficult thing to encompass both traits. Ham on Rye is an autobiography detailing Bukowski’s life from adolescence through the his college years. Let’s start with the writing style. It’s very straight forward, no overly arduous descriptions of people or places. The book is written in first person (Bukowski refers to himself as Henry “Hank” Chinaski throughout the novel) and Bukowski makes for an incredibly miserable narrator. But who can blame him? The story of his upbringing is so depressing I actually don’t blame him for being such a dick.
His father is egotistical, crazy and physically abusive. He finds any excuse to punish Henry and consistently belittles his worth as a person. Henry is essentially brought up in a loveless home. He is shown no affection by either parent. He is also forbidden from making friends, so his adolescence is consequently very lonely. He’s a very quiet person as a result of his father consistently insisting that he remain silent. Evidently, his school years are not very pleasant. He’s picked on and consistently viewed as the outcast.
Now if all that wasn’t enough, as a teen he develops a severe acne issue on his face AND body. He’s covered in large boils that need to be medically drained every few days. The boils are so bad that he gets kicked out of school! So not only is he unloved at home, friendless, lonely and poor…he’s also covered in boils and described as very ugly. Seriously? At one point I had to stop reading because I felt so bad at how unlucky Henry was.
We get a lot of descriptions on how sexually frustrated Henry is. He knows no girl will ever be interested in him but he doesn’t care because he isn’t interested in these girls anyway (do you see the self loathing and narcissism?). By the age of fourteen he’s introduced to alcohol and so begins his drinking problem. This book has red lights that scream depression. Henry consistently describes how much he just wants to stay in bed forever, wants to shut out the world, wants to pretend to be a monk so he can live in solitude and not have to deal with anyone. However, as the book is set in the 1930’s-1940’s depression was not well recognised nor were their appropriate treatments.
The college years depict a downward spiral for Henry. The drinking is out of control, he’s violent, arrogant and living out of cheap motels. There were times when I hated Henry and times when I pitied him. The upbringing he had was incredibly difficult but he grows into such a morbidly viscous person it becomes more and more difficult to sympathise with him. I really did enjoy this book, but it is one to approach with caution. I didn’t feel great after finishing the novel. The ending wasn’t a happy ending. I did some research on Bukowski and his alcoholism was an issue throughout his whole life. From what I read his quality of life was not great for a very long time.
He’s been described as one of America’s greatest novelist. Ham on Rye is the only book I have read for Bukowski. Based on this novel I don’t know if I agree with that statement. I think he’s definitely a good author. He’s writing style is sharp, to the point and yet still perceptive of american poverty during the great depression. I just don’t know if he’s that great. I may have to read a little more of his work before I make a decision, and based on my research, most of his work is pretty morbid…I’ll probably have to space it out.
Final Rating: 3.5/5