In the past year I have had a couple people who I trust implicitly in their book recommendations explain to me that the fact that I had not read Charles Bukowski was a massive misstep in my literary calculations. I’m not sure I have any excuse for not reading him sooner other than I just wasn’t that interested. Now that I have finished Ham on Rye I am not sure I can think of Bukowski the same way again. This novel ends up ranking high on the list of coming of age novels, right alongside The Catcher in the Rye. In fact I find the novel remarkably similar to Salinger’s famous work. I suspect that if it weren’t so downright crude, Ham on Rye would be read just as widely, instead of primarily by disgruntled white guys in their mid twenties dissatisfied by their lives… moving on.
Anyway, Ham on Rye is a work of “fiction,” or so it is listed. Just how much in the novel is true and just how much is false was probably lost with Bukowski upon his death in 1994, but what is clear is that the work is essentially autobiographical, but narrated by the character Henry Chinaski, the alter ego of Charles Bukowski. The plot follows Chinaski’s life from his very first memory to watching his only friend ship off to fight the Japanese in WWII. While there are tons of things to be garnered from Ham on Rye, perhaps it is easiest to begin with a simple fact: Henry Chinaski lived a horrible life. As far as childhoods go, this is almost as bad as it gets. Reading it gets softened a bit with black humor, but it remains tough nonetheless. Much like Vonnegut, Bukowski possesses the rare ability to write something morally sickening but make you laugh with your entire body at it.
Reminiscent of Holden Caulfield, Henry Chinaski has a talent for pushing everyone away from him because that is what is easiest. You save yourself a lot of disappointment if you just assume the world is nothing but morons who can only make your life miserable. What becomes the danger with Ham on Rye is deciding whether or not you really agree with anything that Chinaski is saying. A lot of observations that Chinaski makes are spot on, but the question that must be asked immediately is simply: So? As he leaves the library each day, feeling better for having taken solace in the books around him written by the great authors in history, does it do Chinaski any good? If anything it further deludes him into thinking nothing will make him happy, that it’s all bullshit, all an illusion. It brings to mind Camus, whose philosophy is interesting but nearly forgettable in the sense that it just offers so little to the average person.
Let me pull back a little. I don’t intend to lead you to believe that Chinaski thinks he is exceptional. In fact it’s the opposite. He thinks he and everyone around him is worthless, he is just more in touch with his own worthlessness. But isn’t that the same thing in the end? I suppose it’s true that some people never learn. Some people never get better. Yet I believe what makes The Catcher in the Rye a great novel is the fact that Holden makes a breakthrough in the end. Is not the reason we love Good Will Hunting the very fact that he finally lets a person in rather than pushes him away? Bukowski has that cool postmodern cynicism about him. It makes him the king of cultural criticism because seeing through all the BS isn’t work to him, it’s the life he leads. His detailing his college years in Ham on Rye is a must-read for every diehard liberal that spends their life in agreement with idealism as long as it means they don’t have to actually do anything.
Ham on Rye is the kind of novel that cuts through it all and lays it bare, but I’m not sure it gives any thought to wanting to fix anything or even rebuild. Often times it cut through things I held dear and I wanted to argue with Chinaski. I kept thinking he was like The Dude in The Big Lebowski, just more violent when drunk. That anything I said would just be thrown back at me, “that’s just like, your opinion, man.” In the end, at least I have my opinions. When it comes to Chinaski, the lack of feeling, the lack of care, and the pure irony is something I again say “no, thanks” to, despite Ham on Rye being well-worth the price of admission.
Recommended to: Those who enjoy The Catcher in the Rye and those who want to read a character so defensive of letting himself be loved that he pushes even his readers away.
Avoid as if it’s a freshman philosophy student that begins most sentences with, “Well, I’ve read Sartre…”: If you don’t like coming of age stories then you will not enjoy Ham on Rye. If heavy vulgarity dissuades you then look for something else.