Charles Bukowski is a writer I’ve been hearing about, off and on, for years. He has been referenced in songs of musical artists I follow, as well as friends recommending his work. Still, I didn’t find the time to actually read one of his books until my recent vacation.
Ham On Rye is a seemingly autobiographical look at Bukowski’s childhood. One can’t help but reminisce at times having long since gone when reading a Depression era writer describing the neighborhood and difficulty seen during that time. Books like this do a great job of telling everyman’s story and what could reasonably be expected in an era. There are many works similar in painting these times–Kerouac’s On The Road, Salinger’s Catcher In The Rye, etc.
What’s odd and interesting about Bukowski is his capability to weave wry humor into his work while still serving as a serious account. His word choice and what he’s willing to put down on the page is lude and hilarious. It really doesn’t feel tongue in cheek either. It’s simply the account of a young man learning and living–sometimes funny, sometimes very sad.
Despite the two other seminal works called out earlier, the first book that came to mind while reading this was actually Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce. The difference being that Bukowski is much more relatable and easy to follow than Joyce. He says what he thinks (or was thinking) and makes no apologies for it.
The majority of the tale is the protagonist being put upon by most everyone including his parents and attempting to make his way. And it’s written in such a way that makes you root for him–but there are moments that showcase the underlying importance of the story.
Henry Chinaski is the main character. There are a few different situations where he sees the world and it’s inhabitants gang up on the weaker individuals or animals without mercy. Pack hunting is commonplace. While he has a conscious, many don’t seem to see things similarly, and the fact that he can’t change that.
Books like those mentioned in this post mostly end unceremoniously. Ham On Rye is no different. I’ve always appreciated these endings. Halden Caulfield, Stephen Dedalus, Jack Kerouac and Henry Chinaski are not heroes. They aren’t meant to be painted as such. They’re just simple people living in a manic jungle of a world, trying their best to keep their heads above water.