Friday, April 22, 2011

Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski

Earlier this week we had a post about liking stories written by unlikeable people. Today we ask a similar question. Can you enjoy a novel with a unlikeable protagonist?

Ham on Rye takes the coming-of-age genre out for a night of drinking and leaves it shaking in the gutter. Its “hero” is Henry Chinaski, the thinly-veiled (if you can call him that) alter-ego of the author, Charles Bukowski. Growing up poor in Los Angeles around the Great Depression and World War II, Henry recounts his experiences as a child and young man.

To say that Bukowski’s writing is not for everyone is a monumental understatement. The young characters in this novel are aware of sex at a young age and mimic the language that they hear from their parents, and you hear just about every word imaginable. They experiment with alcohol, and Henry takes a liking to it right away.

"And my own affairs were as bad, as dismal, as the day I had been born. The only difference was that now I could drink now and then, though never often enough. Drink was the only thing that kept a man from feeling forever stunned and useless. Everything else just kept picking and picking, hacking away. And nothing was interesting, nothing.”

The kids (and adults for that matter) abuse each other emotionally and physically. Reading Henry’s account of grade school hit close to home and left me thinking about my own childhood experiences. I remember being the subject of ridicule and sometimes joined in the embarrassment of another. While reading, I was jolted with the realization that childhood really is this savage fight to survive, or at least be left alone. Come to think of it, that struggle can be applied to all stages of life.

Henry doesn’t really care for other people. He tends to attract friends rather than actively seek them out, and it doesn’t take much for him to tell them to get lost. Late in the book, he drunkenly tells one friend that he’s going to sleep with his mother. When he finds out that she’s actually up for it, he loses his nerve.

That said, Ham on Rye finds heartfelt moments too, especially after Henry is struck with a plague-like case of acne. It’s so embarrassingly bad that Henry leaves high school for a year, and it’s only when he’s not being formally educated that he discovers reading and devours all of the books in the public library. Reading gives Chinaski peace after a decade and a half of sheer wild insanity, and gives him the courage to start writing his own stories.

"It was a joy! Words weren't dull, 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."

At a free clinic where he is treated for the acne (by having it drained), Henry becomes infatuated with his nurse. Unlike the girls at school that he lusts after, Henry’s attention to the nurse is one of reverence. The passage about his last encounter with her is sweet and quietly heartbreaking.

My first experience with Bukowski’s writing was another novel with an older Henry Chinaski as the main character, Factotum. What struck me the most when I read it was an almost intentional lack of writing style or narrative. Chinaski mostly jumps from job to job with a straightforward description of everything that he experiences. It becomes very easy to assume that Bukowski simply wrote down everything that he could remember happening to him.

Five of Bukowksi’s novels feature Henry Chinaski. If you find yourself wondering what the hell happened to this kid (or if you find yourself actually liking him a bit), you can basically read his entire life.

Ham on Rye is plain-spoken, gross, goofy, violent, and full of terrible role models. What guy wouldn’t want to give it a try? Just don’t expect to make a new friend.

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