The Horrible Childhood of a Pulp Icon – Review of “Ham on Rye” by Charles Bukowski

Book Cover for “Ham on Rye” Source

Horror stories often involve the supernatural or the extra-ordinary. Often times the only mundane subjects in such stories are the principal characters, generally mortal men and women bereft in a world that once made perfect sense. But what if the world never made sense? What if the horror itself was mundane and the result of a sometimes banal landscape? Charles Bukowski’s Ham on Rye is as semi-autobiographical as his other novels except this one deals primarily with his coming-of-age. The horror to which I spoke of earlier in the paragraph is growing up feeling like the world has something against you, which is the general sense one gets reading this novel.

I’m not saying that Bukowski presents a “woe is me” pity-cry of a story. On the contrary, the story is straight-forward and earnest, even darkly humorous at times. As a writer, Bukowski imbues his text with little pretention or fluff, choosing instead to dig out the marrow of a scene, a sentence, or a feeling. The author has always viewed the world from the bottom and his writing carries inside it the mind of someone well-versed in the dirty heels of life. From awkward family moments to sometimes hilarious situations (provided one has a grasp of grim humor), Bukowski weaves a story in Ham on Rye that should be far more depressing than it actually is

One of the earliest scenes establishes the author’s view on childhood and the horrors experienced there. Through a thinly-veiled literary alter ego named Henry Chinaski, Bukowski takes the reader into a depressed time and a depressed house. Born in 1920, Chinaski grows up in the Depression, the son of German immigrants. His father, Henry Sr., is portrayed as a brutal, hypocritical man, someone who demonized his brothers for whore-mongering but allowed his son to see him cheat on his wife. Chinaski’s mother is shown as a doting but ultimately subservient parent (at least throughout the majority of the novel). The most telling scene that establishes both the father’s penchant for needless violence and the growing sense of displacement in the protagonist is when Chinaski takes the reader through the first of subsequently many habitual beatings. (Note: I use “beatings” here because the author describes them as such. As someone who grew up under the strap, I know the feeling that a seemingly arbitrary belt lashing can cause.) Chinaski asks his mother why she didn’t intervene, even though she knew her son didn’t deserve the punishment. The mother’s response that the father is always right is chilling in regards to the abdication of both parental oversight and child protection.

The Dirty Old Man of Beat Literature, Charles Bukowski. Source

A digression for a moment: I mentioned that I was a child who received physical discipline. I was never abused but there are more than a few people I know that did experience such horrors (and that is the only appropriate word). One should consider the cultural context of Depression-era America before condemning the Henry Sr.’s actions too much. Many families of that time period believed firmly that sparing the rod meant spoiling the child. There’s little doubt that Bukowski mined his father’s actions to tell a story and in the process condemning a parental mindset that saw causing physical pain as means to improve a child’s moral bearing.

If one were to look at Bukowski the man, one couldn’t help but notice the pock-marks and scars that covered much of his face. The author has young Chinaski develop these as well by going through the same experience he did: acne vulgaris, an extreme form of the typical pubescent malady. Combining the gigantic pustules with a severely repressed personality like Chinaski’s creates a rage that seeps into a person’s thoughts and actions, which is evident in the many passages about loving sports that involve a great deal of violence like football. Chinaski provides excruciating detail into the physical and social toll this bodily affliction causes, including standing in the bushes outside his senior prom too disfigured to ever engage any of the “normal” teens of his school. The explosive acne drives an already damaged character into full-blown cynicism, which is exacerbated with Chinaski’s discovery of alcohol. As the author writes, “With [alcohol], life was great, a man was perfect, nothing could touch him” and it should be pointed out that Henry Sr. despised drinkers, which I’m sure added some charm to the drink as well for Henry Jr.

The earlier father-son dynamic also receives a denouement as well, altering to something filled with defiant pathos. Whether it was due to the frequent physical pain caused by drilling into his boils or simply losing his ability to care, Chinaski recounts the last beating as a quiet triumph. The author notes that his father couldn’t look him in the eyes because something fundamental had shifted. At some point, a child must lose their initial fear of the parent, which often leads to acceptance or rejection of the parent as just another human being. From that point forward in the novel, Henry Sr. no longer holds dominion over anyone, even his wife.

The novel is also filled with darkly comic moments and no small amount of sleaze (which should not be surprising considering the pulp sensibilities of Bukowski’s work). There’s a bitter taste to Bukowski’s sense of humor, like one is biting into a sour fruit that’s still enjoyable. The scene that contains the most uncomfortable comic relief (and there are many in the book) involves a very attractive English teacher with a penchant for showing off too much of her legs and a mentally retarded school boy who proceeds to furiously masturbate at his desk in a full mixed gender class. The absurdity of everyone, including the teacher, ignoring the obvious sounds of self-love is priceless and filled with twisted comic timing.

Bukowski’s work isn’t for everyone and that’s by design of the author. While I enjoyed the novel, there are moments where I found myself disgusted by the character, who comes across sometimes as a sexist, misogynist brute. There are times where the line between biography-as-fiction and fiction become blurry, resulting in moments where it’s difficult to tell if this is simply a character or Bukowski revealing his thoughts. The argument for his sexism and misogyny can certainly be made with his other works featuring the Chinaski character but in Ham on Rye one gets the sense that growing up as he did, there may have been few options for both the author and his literary doppelganger.

For those who enjoy fiction with a large dollop of hyperbolic pulp reality, you should check out this novel. Bukowski’s Skid Row antics may seem churlish but that doesn’t make them any less entertaining or engaging.

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