Ham On Rye by Charles Bukowski (Book Review)


BRILLIANT stuff! Ham on Rye is a book that I’d been wishing were written for years now, and meanwhile it had been all along: a book about kids and teenagers being just that – kids and teenagers in their rawest form. And it’s also about teachers, principals and other public-school authorities acting like children and lunatics as well, and I absolutely love that. I was actually really surprised that kids, preteens and teenagers spoke in such a lewd, raunchy manner back in the 1920s and 30s, but I guess that was just a naivety on my part. And the things they did…well, I won’t spoil it for you.

Bukowski starts the book from the age of 2, at his first memory, under a dining-room table while adults chatted away, and ends it at the age of 21. So we have a long, solid timeline with a whole lot of character development and sad, funny, outrageous anecdotes that bring to light why Charles Bukowski (AKA Henry Chinaski in his novels) turned out to be the way he was, with the very eccentric, but razor-sharp, mind he had. It’s the story of a person destined to be an outcast just for being different, quiet, introspective, ruminative and plain old ugly.

Between an insane, cheap, abusive, anal-retentive father who for years beat him incessantly with his razor strop, and then, as a teenager, being covered from head to toe, front and back, with a horrific case of acne and gigantic boils that left scars all over his face and body – well, given he turned into a bookworm and lover of writing short stories as well – he was also destined for greatness. I mean, let’s face it: Bukowski was, indeed, a writer with something to say, and so writing affirmed the tragedy which was his life from an early age: poor, abused, dejected, angry, and alone. He speaks of a nauseating whiteness that filled the air all around him and everyone else from the time he was 5. I found that so fascinating. It’s no wonder he turned into a drinker at the age of 12 in order to escape the mundane, depressing world he grew up in and felt he had no other escape from, until he started reading books and then, after that, writing.

He became and always remained disillusioned by the rabble and their “American dream.” He wasn’t buying it. He saw through it all. To him, it was all just bullshit that stifled a person’s individuality while offering false hope and an array of pathetic masks, that is, labels that really just amounted to embracing nothingness via gratifying the ego through man-made status and ignorance in a world where nothing really mattered at all. He was a nihilist, but one who wanted nothing more than to live the way he wanted to (9-to-5 life be damned!), preferably in isolation, away from Homo sapiens, while somehow denying that he was a misanthrope, yet having nothing but disdain for the human race.

There is one thing in the book that really surprised and disappointed me. Bukowski said in an interview once that he didn’t lose his virginity till the age of 24, because he was an outcast and that that woman was the only woman who ever liked him. But there are three incidents in the book that tell otherwise. I’ll only name one of them here so as to not give away too much: One time, while still a high-school student, he was at the beach with his really messed-up chick magnet of a friend, and a group of attractive, chipper girls walked up to them and called them cute. The girls wanted the BOTH of them to join them and have some good old-fashioned beach fun. Chinaski said to count him out. No one, including his friend, understood why. They asked what was wrong with him, and his friend told them that he’s just weird. Well, yeah, he was weird, but that wasn’t his problem. His problem was that he preferred to wallow in misery and remain self-loathing over his acne and boils rather than get what he was dying for – to get laid with a beautiful girl. And he could have. But he chose to just watch them all having fun from a distance in order to feed off of the contempt he had for them and his life, like some emo masochist.

At any rate, I loved this book and so was able to get through it quickly. It was simply captivating in its raw, unabashed realism. Bukowski could write about anything and make it interesting. I love that in a writer. It’s what made him so great. 

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