Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski (1982)

L: 8/10

M: 5/10

J: 6/10

Analysis from the neighbors cleaverly named WIFI:

I had heard the name Bukowski. I knew that it was an important one, but yet I never found one of his books in my hand. There are a million things to read, watch, and write… but I still want to read and watch the things that allowed everything else to exist. The influential voices and hands that paved the way for the Paliniuk’s and Ellis’s of my bookshelf. I know we have read a Dickens, some Orwell, and Atwood, but we have yet to really scratch the surface when it comes to literary giants. Having hit the snooze button on high school, I missed a lot of opportunities to be inspired by such pieces of work.

I am beyond glad to finally get a Bukowski in my hands. There is no shortage of material to choose from, and I feel like this book was meant to be read first, as it details the early years of a character loosely based on Charles Bukowski’s life. Our main character, Henry Chinaski, details his early life up through high school, truly showing us that if we thought our adolescence was rough, we clearly had no idea.

His parents brought him to the states early to start a new life in California. His father was incredibly abusive, and his mother did very little to prevent violence. Henry was forced into isolation by his parents even before the physical debilitation, known as acne, took force. These early formative years are far from normal and unfortunately set Henry up for years of tragedy to come.

Through Junior High and High School, Henry had a way of drawing in similarly troubled kids, forming cliques whether he wanted to or not. His parents’ affection never strengthened, and terrible parenting came to a head when he was just starting to find his way as a writer in college. Once homeless and forced to fend for himself, he found the darkest places possible and drank his fought his way through the days.

From what little research I’ve done on the man, it seems as if his writing doesn’t stray far from this path. It is interesting to hear the exact reasons why someone’s thought processes and writing traits can be so clearly defined. Charles Bukowski has lost faith in the World, but more importantly, he may have never had to begin with. I hope he comes up sooner than later in a future pick. I will now add his name to the list of classic authors I search for any time I’m in a used book store.

Analysis from a fool in love with pain:

First of all let me be transparent, I am basically in love with Charles Bukowski. It is ridiculous seeing as how I truly did not enjoy this book, but after receiving some information from L and doing my own deep dive into Bukowski’s life and mannerisms, I have decided that I would have wasted many years loving and trying to fix this man. Troubled, melancholy men with great smiles are my weakness. Luckily I had no idea how dreamy he was until after I had read the book so my review will not be biased. This time. I plan to read much more from this man including his poetry (swoon) and I will, as I would have in life, make every possible excuse and reason for any missteps he may take with his writing.

Okay, so now onto this book. THIS DAMN BOOK. Look, I really do enjoy the writing. I like the pace and the style very much. This book is an easy read. It is mainly the words I have a problem with. Now I understand that Charles Bukowski’s style is cynical and aggressive. I take no issue with that and can get on board, but this story just went nowhere! As I previously have said there were no peaks and valleys just a plateau of misery. The story never moved away from the same level of angst, sexual frustration, need to fight and hate for life. I want a story to take me on a journey. I want a notable beginning, middle and end. Everything that happened in this book could have literally happened in chapter one and it would have all made sense. That would have set us up for what great obstacle he would overcome or fail at and what the fallout would be. There was no such obstacle. Instead, each day was shit and shit turned into more shit then acne shit and masturbating shit and fighting shit. Shit. SHIT. Shit.

Would I recommend this book? Surely not. I want more from him and I will continue to read his work to find something with real substance and meat that isn’t just built on how miserable a life can be for no real purpose. I don’t mind melancholy and darkness at all, but I just need to know it is taking me somewhere. This never did.

However, I’m still swooning and already looking at what else I can read of his so who really wins here?

Analysis from a single, sad note held on a violin string way too long:

I’ve read books that have haunted me. The authors have used beautiful words to tell me horrible things, and there is an eloquence to it that I respect. Ham on Rye fell short in this regard, but it did read easily and occasionally left me wondering when the main protagonist, or I, could come up for air.

The early life of Henry Chinaski, as penned by Charles Bukowski, is marred with brutality and rejection. As such, the first third of this book could act as points in a dot-to-dot drawing that ends in a picture of what college-aged Henry would become: a man who rejects conventional morality and human connection. I do appreciate the glimpses that show he was not completely broken. In both his kinship with stray animals and a momentary bond with the nurse who tended his acne wounds, we see there is more to him than the walls he has built.

Because this book reads more like a timeline than a story, lacking engaging plot progression and resolution, I would be unlikely to strongly recommend this book and can’t say I’m eager to delve into more Bukowski above others on my reading list. I don’t regret reading it as I very much enjoyed the cynical representation of the under-represented: the loners, the ugly, and the damaged. Even though this wasn’t the book for me, I do wholly agree with a quote shared when Henry discovered his own love of reading, “Words were things that could make your mind hum. If you read them and let yourself feel the magic, you could live without pain, with hope, no matter what happened to you.” 

Charles Bukowksi

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