on November 29, 1999
Most fans of the late, great Charles Bukowski, myself included, list Ham On Rye as their favorite Bukowski novel - and rightfully so. This novel is actually a thinly-veiled autobiography of the man we knew and loved as "The Bard of Booze and Broads." We see through the eyes of young Henry Chinaski as he comes of age in Depression-era America, the product of a dysfunctional and physically abusive household. From his early childhood as a desperately lonely, yet antisocial little boy to his adolescence (where he struggles with crippling acne and develops a love of literature), we see the genesis of a great writer. Bukowski pulls no punches (no pun intended) in his descriptions of abuse suffered at the hands of his father, a coldhearted, arrogant, sadistic SOB. The reader is drawn in to Bukowski's passionate determination to be the exact opposite of what proper society tries to mold its youth into. A powerful and heartbreaking read. Great work, Buk! R.I.P - you will be missed!
I have been returning to the work of Charles Bukowski (1920 -- 1994) after reading his novel "Factotum" and watching the movie based upon it. Bukowski's novel "Ham on Rye" (1982) is a coming-of age novel in that it tells the story of Bukowski's protagonist, Henry Chinaski, from his birth to his young manhood, ending with the attack on Pearl Harbor. ("Factotum", written in 1978 covers the next period of Chinaski's life, after he has been rejected for the draft and wanders from city to city in search of work.) Chinaski is based loosely on Bukowski's own life; but "Ham on Rye" and Bukowski's other novels are, after all, works of fiction and should be read as such.
The scene of "Ham on Rye" is Los Angeles during the Great Depression, particularly the lower middle-class homes in which Chinaski grows up, as families struggle to survive and to escape from poverty. Bukowski is at his best in describing dingy homes, streets, schools, and desperate people.
But "Ham on Rye" is a coming-of-age book told with irony and twists. It seemingly mocks the story of self-discovery and self-awakening common to these distinctively American books, but in the end I think it follows the pattern of a coming-of-age story in spite of itself. Most American coming-of-age books recount the life of a young person and end when that person comes to some crisis which he meets and, thus, attains a degree of understanding of himself which he carries through life. Bukowski's book tells the story of an unhappy childhood, as Chinaski is subjected to an overbearing father and frequent beatings. In addition, as an early adolescent, Chinaski develops a terrible case of acne which exacerbates his tendency to aloneness as well as his anger and rebeliousness. After graduating from high school, Chinaski loses a menial job, enrolls in a Junior College, and begins to drink heavily. He is well on the way to a life of alcoholism, fighting, wandering, and gambling that is detailed in chronologically later novels of Chinaski's life, such as "Factotum" or "Women".
Yet for all its rawness and Chinaski's sense of failure and purposelessness, the book conveys a sense of promise. The book shows a young Chinaski forming the desire to be a writer, and beginning to work at his craft and respond to his experiences in a manner that, years later, would result in "Ham on Rye" and in Bukowski's other works of fiction and poetry. Some of the best moments in "Ham on Rye" show the adolescent Chinaski sitting alone in the Los Angeles Public Library and ultimately discovering authors, including D.H. Lawrence, Upton Sinclair, and Sinclair Lewis, who speak to him. As had many before him, Chinaski learns that projecting oneself into artistic creation offers a form of release from the difficulties of everyday life. Chinaski writes: "Words weren't dull, words were things that could make your mind hum. If you read them and let yourself feel the magic, you could live without pain, with hope, no matter what happened to you." (p. 152) These words reflect the theme of "Ham on Rye" and, I think, of Bukowski's work as a whole.
Similarly while suffering from his acute acne, Chinaski develops a character a WW I pilot named Baron Von Himmlen, and writes stories of his imagined adventures. Chinaski writes: "it made me feel good to write about the Baron. A man needed somebody. There wasn't anybody around so you had to make up somebody, make him up to be like a man should be". (p. 168)
"Ham and Rye" is the story of how a young man found himself in adulthood leading a life of alcoholism, poverty, and loneliness, with no ambition and seemingly few prospects. The book is full of adolescent sexual frustration, dysfunctional families, rawness, vulgarity, and failure. It also includes some funny scenes. The story is told in a sharp, crude, no-nonsense style. But together with all the outward failure and the shocking scenes, we see a young Chinaski in the process of attaining his dream and gaining victory over himself after all. In spite of the dead-end vicissitudes of his life, Henry Chinaski perseveres and gradually brings his experiences alive and learns to make something worthwhile of his existence. He learns to reflect upon himself and his life and to describe them without cant or mercy. Henry Chinaski becomes a writer.
on September 21, 2004
Depending upon your taste in literature, Charles Bukowski was either a brilliant writer who has yet to receive to respect he truly deserves or nothing more than a drunk with a typewriter. Most of those who love Bukowski seem to have discovered him through his poetry, but Ham on Rye was my introduction to the author, and it remains my favorite work of his. In fact, I think Ham on Rye is probably the best coming-of-age story in American literature, far superior to Catcher in the Rye. Although Salinger's novel captures your attention when you're thirteen, it tends to suffer terribly when you reflect back on it as a more mature individual and recognize the narcissicism and insincerity at the heart of Holden Caulfield's attitude towards the world. Ham on Rye does not romanticize the innocence of children and depict adults as "phonies." It is Bukowski's own thinly veiled account of his childhood and adolescence in Los Angeles between the two world wars, as told through the eyes of his alter ego, Henry Chinaski. Ham on Rye shares the same brutal humor and breezy prose style as Post Office and Women, but it is much more tightly focused than any of Bukowski's prior novels, which tended to be more episodic than anything else. For that reason I think it ultimately achieves a sort of lasting resonance with the reader that is lacking in much of Bukowski's other prose work, for all of the energy and spontaneity his writing always possessed. Ham on Rye is alternatively hilarious and horrifying, but it always remains truthful in a way that few coming-of-age novels are. Anyone new to Charles Bukowski should start with this.
on October 26, 2005
For years I sold Bukowski's poetry to sad-looking men and the occasional punk-looking (very young) woman. This was in the 1980s and early 1990s. I never took the stuff seriously. Poetry about hangovers and turds? Give me a break.
But when I was introduced to Russell David Harper's manuscript of BALD -- his own ficitional memoir -- and Miha Mazzini's CARTIER PROJECT, I was forced to dig deeper into this phenomenon. (CARTIER is an eastern European Bukowski, and BALD is an intelligent memoir of hangovers.)
HAM ON RYE was my first real Bukowski venture, and I devoured it. It's a sad and moving work. There's not a single metaphor in it; it's to-the-gut writing straight from the heart. I bought my copy dog-eared and coffee-stained in a sidewalk sale in San Francisco, and I'm not letting it go. However, I'm now afraid of digging deeper into Bukowski out of fear of being disappointed. HAM ON RYE has set my expectations unreasonably high.
on October 16, 2011
When I was reading reviews and thinking about my experience with Ham on Rye (my second outing with Bukowski, after having read Pulp), I initially thought I would give it 1 or 2 stars based on how much I disliked the character. I started checking out Bukowski after doing a thesis on the importance of Beat lit, and noting his proximity to the time frame and stylistic similarities to the writers I so adore.
I disliked Henry Chinaski because, in my mind, he felt real like a lot of the characters I had loved in my favorite books, but instead of having a glowing outlook on life despite setbacks he just let it fester inside him and make him bitter, and I ended up resenting Chinaski for most of his personality (he comes off as a chauvanistic, alcoholic, bitter prick to be completely frank). That coupled with the fact that it seemed as though he was parading around how bad his childhood was because he was poor, had bad acne, etc it started to feel like a pissing contest with no one in particular in mind. But the more I thought about it and dissected him, there were portions of that personality I loved that would peek out from under the foil of a disenchanted youth, angry at the world. There's an odd sort of humanity in Chinaski, and it's very unique to this novel.
This book is also very funny, if you don't take it (or yourself) too seriously. I don't know that Bukowski meant it to be humorous in a satirical or ironic sense, but if you don't internalize the things Chinaski thinks, says, or does, and just take them at face value in context of the rest of his personality, it actually is quite funny. But be forewarned, if you are offended easily you should turn back now. I have yet to check out Bukowski's poetry, but I think I will now that I reflect on this novel.
Oh, and the fanboys flocking to the 1 star reviews: calm down a little bit. Just because some users don't (or can't) see what you see in a book does not necessarily make them mindless philistines. A majority of the comments I've seen on reviews were attacking people's intellect, self-esteem, or even their ability to read. It's nice that you enjoy your books, let that be enough.
on September 19, 1998
In all of Bukowski's work there is a constant search for truth and freedom. With every breath that Bukowski takes he is locked in a fevered struggle with the forces around him that contiually attempt to make him walk the path of the common man. Bukowski sees this as nothing more than falling into a lock step towards certain death. Though he portrays himself as a repulsive type of human being, he is able to convince us that it is the world around him that is far more repulsive. In Ham On Rye, we are lead through the more meaningful chapters of Bukowski's childhood and early adulthood. There are very few pieces of literature that reaches readers with more honesty. As we read Bukowski we may at one moment feel relieved that we do not have to live his life, but in the next moment, are envious of the freedom in which he enjoys. Ham On Rye is one of those extremely rare pieces of fiction that allows a great work of art to simply flow into us. Reading Ham On Rye is simply effortless. It is almost as if it passes directly into us. This is, without a doubt, the most important American novel of the last quarter century. How can the readers of great literature wonder, in horrific despair, with the passing of Salinger, Miller and Bukowski, if a truly great writer will appear in our lifetimes. I, for one, have very little hope, but continue to stand vigilant
on January 6, 2005
Charles Bukowski has lived harder than you. Or anyone you know. This book desribes his early life in a thinly veiled autobiography.
You can't have a better introduction to Bukowski's writing. By reading this book, you'll get an introduction to the hilarious irony of his day-to-day situations, the piercing sadness of his struggle, and the amazing strength he shows in everything he does.
This book isn't for the half-hearted or the meek. Anyone who's ever tried harder only to have their lot get worse can understand what's happening here. Don't be judgemental; Bukowski really is just a drunk with a typewriter, but he writes better than any high school composition teacher.
on February 16, 2000
Bukowski's greatest achievement... of a great many excellent works. If you read this book you have all the information you need to know to understand what made Charles Bukowski Charles Bukowski. From the opening pages, Bukowski sets the tone of loneliness, apathy and sadness that prevailed through most of his work. Sprinkled throughout is that old Bukowski humor, the flair for the surreal that's made Bukowski and his alter ego, Henry Chinaski, a hero to millions.
I love his poems, but this bittersweet story of a young man coming to age is a classic. Highly recommended for Bukowski fans and any who are curious just what the hell the fuss is all about.
So asks (p. 245) Bukowski's alter ego, Henry Chinaski, as this gripping romansbildung draws to a conclusion. The rather mysteriously-titled Ham on Rye is undoubtedly Bukowski's finest and most obviously autobiographical novel. In it, he gives us a variably chilling, pathetic, hilarious, and defiant portrait of Chinaski's first 20 years, taking us right up to the attack on Pearl Harbor and Chinaski on his way to the Skid Row existence brutally chronicled in Factotum, the second volume in the Chinaski series.
There's something heart-wrenching in Bukowski's description of the early years of his anti-hero Chinaski. A loser father who vents his self-hatred by sadistically beating his son; a spineless mother who can't stand up for either herself or her son--and whom Chinaski loves as little as he does his father; a sometimes comic assortment of misfit schoolmates who attach themselves to a reluctant Chinaski; boring, unrewarding, and mind-killing classes in primary, middle, and high schools; the wondrous discovery of books in the public library; the horrors of out-of-control acne, so like leprosy in both appearance and social consequences; the initial vagueries and eventually fires of pubescent longing; the (d)evolution of an abused and lonely boy into a hard-drinking, hot-tempered, bullying youth; and the beginning of a series of one dead-end job after another: these are the moments in Henry Chinaski's life captured in the novel. It's little wonder that by the story's midpoint, Chinaski is a young cynic, disgusted with the "proper" socially successful world to which his parents aspire. As he tells us (p. 174),
'The problem was you had to keep choosing between one evil or another, and no matter what you chose, they sliced a little bit more off you, until there was nothing left. At the age of 25 most people were finished. A whole god-damned nation of a--holes driving automobiles, eating, having babies, doing everything in the worst way possible, like voting for the presidential candidate who reminded them most of themselves.'
Bukowski's brilliant, disturbing novel is a chronicle of hope defeated and tenderness abused. By novel's end, Henry Chinaski has turned from a lovable, mistreated child into a genuinely unlikeable lost soul. To a certain extent, in later novels and in real life, both Chinaski and Bukowski will save themselves through art. But the climb up from the hellish youth and adolescence chronicled here will be long and difficult.
on October 8, 2004
This is Bukowski's masterpiece. It is vulgar, sad, funny, and compassionate. Not many writers can write a book like this. He does not exploit his terrible upbringing or less than "respectable" views on life (as he sometimes does in other books) but rather turns these facts into good literature. It's like punk rock on paper. The way he sees through the ridiculously fake nature of much of American life is truly inspirational. And his prose is, as usual, excellent.