Ham on Rye

by Charles Bukowski

Ham on Rye CoverThere’s something almost inexplicable about Bukowski’s writing that hits you when you read it. It’s probably something to do with how natural his prose is, but I think there’s more to it than that. Bukowski knew things, man. He did things that I’d probably work hard to excise from my own writing, like using a word multiple times in joined sentences, and it just adds to the prose, making a description more vivid in the process or––in what would seem contradictory––make his expression more clear with the repetition. And then you toss his ugly honesty into the mix and things get really special.

Bukowski’s seeming lack of fear when confronting his life and his writing really shows his strength of resolve, his bravery, his toughness, and that’s really what Ham on Rye comes across as being about, at its heart. The story is a semi-autobiographical account of the author’s stand-in, Henry Chinaski, growing up during the Depression, a truly tough time for a young man to come to grips with the world around him. Regularly beaten by his father and an outcast from the social groups in his community, Henry learns to grow a hard edge to survive.

And I find it interesting that, despite how ugly and scary Henry becomes, outwardly, as a result, he remains thoughtful throughout. Even with this hard exterior, Henry continues to fight for what’s right, no matter the backlash he could experience. This starts to go by the wayside as the world weighs him down and he finds his only joy and meaning in alcohol, but a glimmer of this maturity remains right up to the end of the book, showcased when he ensures his friend gets to finish his drink before getting shipped off to war.

Of course, as hopeful as this may sound, Bukowski is ultimately a cynical author, and Ham on Rye makes a good case for how inherently cruel humanity can be, but this is just one of the many dimensions of this wonderful story. It’s ugly and it’s beautiful, it’s funny and it’s sad, and it’s written with an honest clarity that only Bukowski seemed to possess.