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Ham on Rye: A Novel Paperback – February 27, 2007
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About the Author
Charles Bukowski is one of America’s best-known contemporary writers of poetry and prose and, many would claim, its most influential and imitated poet. He was born in 1920 in Andernach, Germany, to an American soldier father and a German mother, and brought to the United States at the age of two. He was raised in Los Angeles and lived there for over fifty years. He died in San Pedro, California, on March 9, 1994, at the age of seventy-three, shortly after completing his last novel, Pulp.
Abel Debritto, a former Fulbright scholar and current Marie Curie fellow, works in the digital humanities. He is the author of Charles Bukowski, King of the Underground, and the editor of the Bukowski collections On Writing, On Cats, and On Love.
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Bukowski's boozy world is one where the outsider is the king protagonist of his own destiny, and it is one that is probably shared with a great deal of young men in their American upbringing. His dysfunctional family echoed my own experiences (even though I didn't necessarily have physical punishment, the emotional aspect was spot on). His feelings on his own existence as an animal (and of course, I didn't have the acne problems, but I have myriad others that gave me outsider social status) were real. His experiences with young women, school, and trying to make it against all odds professionally and educationally were very familiar to me.
While Bukowski may be offensive to most readers, the plain fact of the matter is that his views on life and adolescent sexuality are the exact same ones I had in my youth. What is the most memorable is the manner in which he tells the story. He doesn't self-edit. He doesn't leave anything out. He tells us everything about his experiences as they happen. This isn't entirely something that should be described as offensive, but real. A real experience. What it is really like. And while many of us want to find some parochial editorializing when we read, the best part about Bukowski is that that is simply not in his novels.
I first read his work when I was eighteen or nineteen years old. Now that I am thirty-five, picking up HOR again has left me with a reading experience that was much different since I have had a great deal more life experience and perspective. Looking at this book today, I have found a hilarious, beautiful, tragic, and exciting narrative about living as an outsider in America. I absolutely loved it – more than I did the first time – and look forward to revisiting a couple more (Post Office and Women) in the coming year.
Sadly, best known as the alcoholic inspiration for the film Barfly (an experience he reflected on in his book Hollywood), it is as a poet, rather than a drunk, that Bukowski should be best remembered. His bitter, caustic, direct, humane, damaged poetry reflects a life dominated by poverty and booze. His poetry stretches over many, many volumes but Bukowski also wrote great novels: all of them have many faults but the first four books he wrote shine for similar reasons. Post Office and Factotum both dissect, quite brilliantly, the life of an angry, poor man forced to do mindless jobs, pushed around and considered mindless by the fools who force him to do them. Women, as Roddy Doyle points out in his short introduction, continues the themes but focuses on the numerous women who share his hero's bed and bottle.
I would call Chinaski a misanthrope, were it not for his abiding love – nay, obsession- with the female form. (let’s just say l had no idea how gross teenage males could be). Oh, and of course, alcohol. He notably remarks, after experiencing intoxication for the first time: “this is going to help me for a long, long time”.
Unfortunately, the honeymoon is short-lived, and his relationship with alcohol leads to progressively seedier and more violent behavior.
There’s not really much of a “plot” in Ham on Rye: it tells the story of the first 20 years of Chinaski’s life; and then it ends. And that was OK with me.
One aspect of the novel that is worth attention is the world it depicts.The book is set in Los Angeles between approximately 1923 and 1941.You wouldn't know the film industry or more broadly ,the entertainment industry existed.No one here is an actor , would be actor , singer , dancer or screen writer.For that matter , no one is a cop or detective.The people are lower class whites who are often European immigrants or their children who wound up in Los Angeles instead of Cleveland.There are no New York strivers,Mid west farmers daughters or Okies.You only get one glimpse of the rich , near the end of the book.This isn't the LA of Beverly Hills.It's ham on rye country.In other words , it's Los Angeles as you usually don't see it in fiction or movies , especially those covering the time period of the book.