'Ham on Rye' by Charles Bukowski (1982)

Ham on Rye - Charles Bukowski

Charles Bukowski, Ham on Rye (Edinburgh: Canongate Books, 2001), 318pp


"Gathered around me were the weak instead of the strong, the ugly instead of the beautiful, the losers instead of the winners." (pg. 168).

Ham on Rye is difficult to summarise. I would probably say that my impression of Bukowski, from reading this book, is to imagine Tom Waits channelling Ernest Hemingway. (Bukowski himself notes his Hemingway influence on pg. 165). The sparse prose complements the raw, confessional writing in a grimy coming-of-age novel that follows Henry Chinaski (a barely-disguised pseudonym for Bukowski himself) from his confused youth in Depression-era California through his troubled adolescence before concluding (not as abruptly as other reviewers as suggested) at the time of the attack on Pearl Harbor, with Bukowski - sorry, Chinaski - kicked out of his parents' home and living a solo life dedicated to alcoholism and the pursuit of slovenliness.

As a coming-of-age story, Ham on Rye is fantastic. Bukowski accurately (and harrowingly, it must be said) captures the confusion of his troubled youth, particularly the unpredictable violence and abuse by his father (and the passive acquiescence of his mother). He struggles to identify his place in the world, and becomes extremely cynical. Much of the language of the novel is not so much funny as wry and cynical; the humour (in the broadest definition of the term) comes from his knowing contempt of life around him. When he is praised for a school report for a speech he did not even bother to attend, he thinks, "So, that's what they wanted: lies. Beautiful lies. That's what they needed. People were fools." (pg. 87). The abuse by his father is what grounds this novel; passages that in any other book would be merely humorous - like, for example, when his father gives him an Indian costume when all the other kids have cowboy outfits (pg. 89) - are tempered by an undercurrent of despair and contempt that invoke a conflicted sensation in the reader.

Above all, Bukowski's novel is a rejection, or more accurately a resentment, of conformity. Chinaski identifies "a general falsity" in how people live their lives (pg. 215), where "everybody had to conform, find a mold to fit into" (pg. 195). Chinaski resents living one's life in such a way, and finds menial work and the excessive consumption of alcohol less debasing than submission to towing the party line, to agreeing to play the game. When you do play the game - get a job, an education, a wife, etc. - "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." (pg. 192), a sentiment which will have many readers nodding their heads in agreement and recognition. Whilst this probably shouldn't be a guide for how to live one's life, it is refreshing to learn that your own darker thoughts on the state of life and humanity are shared by others. Many of Chinaski's thoughts will strike a chord with the disillusioned and the apathetic, from his views on sales work ("I could see myself happily employed as a clerk there so long as no customers entered the door." (pg. 195)) to the way apathy can manifest itself as bitter and unsocial behaviour:

"... nothing was interesting, nothing. The people were restrictive and careful, all alike. And I've got to live with these fuckers for the rest of my life, I thought... They were dull as horse dung. The girls looked good from a distance, the sun shining through their dresses, their hair. But get up close and listen to their minds running out of their mouths, you felt like digging in under a hill and hiding out with a tommy-gun." (pg. 272).

Bukowski also has some rather valid points to make about social class, about the laughing, superior rich folk with their fast cars and their good looks and their "untroubled youth" (pg. 215) and the poor folk, the ugly misfits who have to endure the feelings of envy and contempt ("It came to me then, clearly, why the rich, golden boys and girls were always laughing. They knew." (pg. 230)). But Chinaski is no social revolutionary - he recognises the hypocrisy of the poor: "I'd be happy to take their new cars and their pretty girlfriends and I wouldn't give a fuck about anything like social justice." (pg. 219). As his friend replies, "the only time most people think about injustice is when it happens to them." Overall, Ham on Rye is a book for those who want to say a big 'fuck you' to the world once in a while.