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
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??