Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski

This post contains spoilers.

Ham on Rye, like much of Charles Bukowski’s largely autobiographical fiction, is an uncompromising and often discomforting look at the beginnings of a life of pain, isolation, and alcoholism. Bukowski was never part of any recognised literary movement, and was instead considered a “street poet” who wrote with insight and raw honesty. Ham on Rye is a bleak and depressing novel, but it holds a compelling honesty that makes it a fascinating, confronting and relatable read.

Ham on Rye follows Bukowski’s fictional alter-ego Henry ‘Hank’ Chinaski (who first appeared in Bukowski’s 1971 novel Post Office) from childhood into late adolescence. Essentially, it is a coming of age tale with a dark twist. There is little childhood happiness for Hank, and the novel’s ending leaves scant hope for any more in his adult life. Indeed, anyone who has read Post Office knows that life does not promise much for Chinaski. Ham on Rye portrays Hank as an outsider from early boyhood – he is the last picked for school sports teams, is bullied by the tough kids, and seems to attract losers for friends. As a teenager he is afflicted by a terrible skin condition that covers his body with unsightly and painful boils. Chinaski’s father is a poor man desperate to be rich, who beats Henry from an early age at any excuse – when Henry fails to clip every single blade of grass on the lawn, for example. As a result of these beatings Henry becomes somewhat numb to pain, and hardens towards life in general. From an early age Chinaski understands the world as a place where “somebody was always controlling who got a chance and who didn’t”. And it seems clear to Chinaski that he is destined to always be the one left behind. The only things that seem to hold any pleasure for Henry are literature (he discovers D.H. Lawrence in the school library and revels in the fact that someone else has recognised and written about the hypocrisy of society) and alcohol.

Bukowski’s writing style is distinctive: the language is simple and clear, and descriptions are often confronting and very honest. There is a great sense of isolation in Bukowski’s style – the reader is trapped in the mind of Chinaski, just as Chinaski is himself trapped. The novel is suffused with violence and desire – an undercurrent of tension (often sexual) that is never relieved runs through the chapters. Chinaski in Ham on Rye is young and angry. He quickly recognises the falsity of society, seeing it first in the way his parents pretend to be rich, in the “soft” wealthy kids at school, and later in the pretentious magazines that won’t publish his gritty short stories. He also recognises his powerlessness in the face of this system. And while Chinaski does find some solace in writing, he realises that while “thoughts and words could be fascinating” they are “finally useless”. His real saviour is alcohol – after his first taste of wine he thinks “I have found something that is going to help me, for a long long time to come”. While Bukowski’s novels are raw and harsh in terms of language, there is a dark poetry in his phrases. Describing a principal’s handshake as feeling like “the inside of a dirty fishbowl”, for example, or the well-dressed high school elites as “beautiful nothings”, brings a bittersweet quality to an otherwise stark and depressing story.

From crap to more crap

There is certainly an overbearing sense of hopelessness to Henry Chinaski’s story. He has no interests, the thought of doing something or being something seems impossible, and he feels that he will never “live comfortably with people”. By the end of the novel Chinaski’s days are characterised by drunkenness and senseless violence. There is the suffocating feeling throughout the novel that Chinaski is trapped in this life – that he will never escape the road he has been set upon. Society – his disdain for the falsity of other people, and own his inability to pretend – has him trapped. Indeed, Chinaski’s refusal to conform is really the only power he has. And this is where the novel’s real strength lies – in Henry’s youthful rage, his sense of injustice, and his pride at being “picked out as one of the bad guys”. We appreciate his “fuck you” attitude towards a world that shows him no respect or care, and we admire his honesty and wit. Henry’s redeeming trait is his refusal to die, to leave the world and take his unpleasant existence with him. He needs to keep going, to win, “just because”. If society will not accept the Henry Chinaskis of the world, at least they can point out its lies and do their best to make it feel uncomfortable.

Ham on Rye was first published in the United States in 1982 by Black Sparrow Press. Bukowski’s other works include the novel Post Office, as well as numerous collections of short stories and poetry. Bukowski died in 1994.

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