It seems like every few years I'm compelled to re-read this novel. It's like re-watching a favorite movie or visiting a dear old friend. In some ways, this book is a dear old friend. Charles Bukowski is known for his coarse poetry and harsh novels, but I find a sensitive, caring man lurking beneath the repugnant language and disregard for societal norms that are routine throughout his works.
Ham on Rye, published in 1982, is an autobiographical story told through the voice of Bukowski's first person alter-ego character Henry Chinaski. Growing up in Depression era Los Angeles wasn't easy for Henry. He had debilitating acne that left both his body and mind horribly scarred. The acne caused Henry to shun other people, often by spending long days in the L.A. Public Library, where he discovered the exceptional works of D.H. Lawrence and Sherwood Anderson and other writers that would influence his work later in life.
Ham on Rye is a novel about acceptance and conformity, or lack of, in school, on the playground, around girls and perhaps, most importantly, among his own family. We get glimpses of his fondness for drink, of which he became famous for later, but here we get a more sentimental Bukowski who uses brashness and contempt to mask his awkwardness and shame regarding his looks - just like most teens.
Between the backyard peeping and neighborhood boxing matches, we see a Depression era family fatally fractured by a father with a fondness for using a razor strop as a whip and a mother who fails to support her troubled son. We see an alienated Bukowski wallow in false bravado to fit in with his peers and we follow along as Henry Chinaski grows up and learns to "be tough."
This book is tough, but not tough to read. It's tough like a flavorful piece of beef jerky. If you are going to read any Charles Bukowski in your life, I'd give this novel a taste.
Dan @ Central