Ham On Rye by Charles Bukowski – Reviewed by Guy Portman
Ham On Rye is a semi-autobiographical account of Bukowski’s formative years in his home city of Los Angeles. The story follows the early life of the author’s alter ego, Henry Chinaski, starting with his earliest memories, then through his school years, college, and introduction to the world of work.
Chinaski’s childhood is a tragic affair, marked by a tempestuous home life, which entailed being bullied and beaten by a domineering, resentful father, and largely ignored by a passive mother. Matters are little better at school where Chinaski finds himself ostracised by the majority of the pupils. His predicament is aggravated yet further when the rebellious and self-deprecating adolescent finds himself an impoverished student in a High School for the wealthy, where he is ravaged by virulent acne, which results in him being forced to temporarily abandon his studies to seek treatment in hospital.
Set against the backdrop of The Great Depression, Ham On Rye is a coming-of-age story, in which the protagonist views himself as an intruder, refusing to adhere to society’s expectations. Written in the author’s trademark visceral, economy of prose style, this is a sad and moving work, which explores violence, alcohol, poverty, women and low-level employment, all recurrent themes in Bukowski’s writing. Though the reader witnesses Chinaski developing into a crude, belligerent, aggressive alcoholic adult, with a somewhat misogynistic attitude, we are able to sympathise with him due to his honesty, inherent humanity, and unrelenting desire to find truth and freedom.