Book Review: Ham On Rye By Charles Bukowski

Charles Bukowski was one angry man.

….Or should I say, Henry Chinaski, Bukowkski’s thinly veiled aler-ego in the novel Ham on Rye.


In this semi-autobiographical take on Bukowksi’s own life, Ham on Rye follows Chinaski through his childhood and adolescence, first in Germany, and then in depression-era Los Angeles.

To say life wasn’t easy for the young Chinaski would be an understatement. Poverty, bullying, and frequent beatings from his father were just a few of the problems he faced on a daily basis. Not to mention the horrible,  disfiguring acne he acquired as a teenager, forcing him to suffer through painful treatments and social ostracization.

As a result of this, Chinaski grew up an angry outsider. He had few friends at school, and spent most of his time reading D.H. Lawrence books in the Los Angeles public library. He also sought solace in writing, but his stories were often dismissed by others as being “too angry”.

I would call Chinaski a misanthrope, were it not for his abiding love – nay, obsession- with the female form. (let’s just say l had no idea how gross teenage males could be).  Oh, and of course, alcohol. He notably remarks, after experiencing intoxication for the first time: “this is going to help me for a long, long time”.


Unfortunately, the honeymoon is short-lived, and his relationship with alcohol leads to progressively seedier and more violent behavior.

There’s not really much of a “plot” in Ham on Rye: it tells the story of the first 20 years of Chinaski’s life; and then it ends. And that was OK with me.

I read this book in one Sunday afternoon. I had planned on seeing Gangster Squad, but had 45 minutes to kill before the movie started. So I popped into the bookstore next to the theatre. I’d been wanting to read Bukowski since I read this letter he wrote, so I picked up this book and settled into a comfy chair to check it out.


Four hours and 230 pages later, I completely missed my movie, but found a great book. (Yes, a book beat out Ryan Gosling. What is happening to me.)


I ended up buying a copy out of guilt (Well played, Chapters Indigo…Well played), and proceeded to walk out of the store like a zombie. The last time I read an entire book in one day was probably in Middle School, when I was obsessed with the Emily of New Moon series.


I used to lock myself in my room for days, devouring books like some sort of crazed meth addict. I’d forgotten what an overwhelming and mentally exhausting feeling this can be. Thoughts and emotions whirred around my brain like crazy; letters floated in front of my eyelids every time I blinked.

I think this book hit me particularly hard because it was so emotionally raw. At times I thought about putting it down, but couldn’t. It was sort of like pressing a canker sore; as uncomfortable as it was, I also kind of liked it. Having read a lot of fluff before this, it felt good to read a book with real pain and tangible feelings involved- one that wasn’t obviously angling to become a Hollywood film.

I think one of the biggest things I took away from this book was just how good my generation has it. Growing up, my parents would say things like, “you kids don’t know how lucky you are!”. And proceed to regale us with harrowing tales from their youth; like “I used to walk four miles to school, in 35 foot high snow!”  or “I had to scrub the floors for three hours every day.. with a toothbrush!”

It was easy to tune them out and hear the voice of the Charlie Brown teacher when it was my parents:


not so much when the words were right there on the page in front of me. It made me feel guilty and ashamed for complaining about all of my first-world problems, when poor Henry Chinaski was wearing the same pants to school every day and getting his ass kicked for missing a blade of grass when he cut the front lawn.

Chinaski’s experience as a German immigrant also really hit me on a personal level. Like Chinaski, my father was also the son of Eastern European immigrants, and he too was chided by his peers and made to feel unwelcome for his immigrant status. It gave me a whole new appreciation for how difficult it was for my dad growing up. I wanted to reach out across four provinces and give him a great big hug.

Even though it was aggressively emo and made my cold sarcastic heart grow three sizes in one day,  I still thought this book was great, and would recommend it to anyone who is looking to take a step out of their reading comfort zone.

I give it: 4/5 Intellectual Dachshunds 

Intellectual Dachshund Says: I Feel Feelings
Intellectual Dachshund Says: I Feel Feelings

Question of the Day: What book has made a lasting impression on you?

And P.S. for those of you who are worried about my emotional health, rest assured that I am currently reading The Happiness Project.. which I’m told fixes every problem in your entire life. Right??


15 thoughts on “Book Review: Ham On Rye By Charles Bukowski

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  1. I’m currently reading The Happiness Project too! It’s slow going because I’m reading it along with other books, but I like it so far. Pretty sure I gave away 50% of my closet last week because it told me to…


    1. I read that part last night! It makes me want to do it this weekend… I also want to adopt her “10 minute tidy” rule before bed… and her “1 minute or less” rule about always doing tasks right away that take less than one minute. I feel like it will last about 1 day though haha


  2. Holy shit you missed Ryan Gosling for a book about an acne covered immigrant? I read one Bukowski piece, I think it was poetry so I didn’t really get into it. I’m not even quite sure what he’s about like that other guy, Vonnegut. This book actually seems like something I would enjoy because I adore autobiographical pieces.

    I need to read this Happiness Project thing. Has great depression been contagious? I think I’ve just been an incredible asshole lately that I’m making everyone else feel terrible.


    1. I know! The power of reading indeed!
      I’ve read one Vonnegut book and I sort of liked it, but he has a pretty heavy science fiction element to his writing.. so if that’s not your bag, you might not be interested. So far, all I’ve learned from the happiness project is that I need to get more sleep and clean out my closets. But I’ll keep you posted.


  3. I read Breakfast of Champions in my early teens and discovered with delight that literature could be madly profane, funny and emotionally profound all at once. I go back to Vonnegut every decade or so; I believe I’m about due.


    1. Holla! Thanks. You really never know what books you are going to connect with eh? Luckily I read a lot of fluffy books both before and after so that is preventing me from actually becoming too deep. No one wants that.


  4. I was wondering where breezyk has been!!! Good book review. I asked my friend to borrow a good easy read for days on the beach and she recommended 50 shades of gray. I might have to make one of those brown paper bag covers for it. I feel a little embarrassed about people seeing me read it- not sure if its because of the content or the really bad writing!
    Love you lots!


    1. hahah yes do get the paper bag 🙂 You should also get a collection of short stories maybe.. like Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris. He is hilarious and a great beach read. You can read one story, then have one margarita. Repeat. I’m so jealous I’m not coming! Have fun xoxo


  5. Call me a prick,,,but all I could think while reading your post was ,,,,,woooahh,,,did she spend 4 hours in Chapters reading a book?
    Lol,,Most memorable book still has to be the Diary of Anne Frank,.
    I’m def gonna get Ham on Rye at the Library next. Currently I’m reading The Queen’s Governess by Karen Harper, it’s written in Young Queen Elizabeth view of her Governess, who took her mother’s place after Anne Boleyn was beheaded by her loving husband.


    1. I know, I couldn’t believe it either… I felt kind of lame, but seriously I was not the only one! People totally camp out in there.. I saw people eating like multiple square meals in their chairs haha


  6. There are so many books that have left lasting impressions on me that it’s really hard to pick just one. This past year, I would have to choose The Fault in Our Stars by John Greene. I’ll never forget this quote from the book, “Time is a Slut. She screws everyone.” No truer words have ever been spoken!


  7. Well, you know me and my Cocaine: An Unauthorized Biography book =P … that book has made a lasting impression on me for sure.

    So what are the titles of the other books you finished reading in the past month? You had said you were going to read 4. I know you mentioned a bunch yesterday so they are all mixed up in my head now lol. I’m putting up my March New Month Resolution post in a couple days and would love to put you, your books and link to this post on it! 🙂


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