It’s time to take a look at Charles Bukowski’s Ham on Rye which was first published in 1982 and marked a shift away from his other work.
Having previously covered the downright depraved, hilarious, contemptible, and laudable Post Office and Factotum, this highly autobiographical novel ditches a lot of the casual debauchery of those works in favour of poignancy and melancholia.
Ham on Rye is Bukowski reflecting back on his childhood and teenage years. He endured a sad and difficult time of it.
If you thought being rejected by the hunk/babe of your dreams during your formative years was the crushing psychological low point of your life, Bukowski’s difficult relationship with his father and struggles with his physical appearance make for far more tragic reading than your issues with hunky Henry.
Ham on Rye
Sadly, during 1930s Depression-era America, the young Bukowski was beaten by his father and, to compound his misery, he wasn’t going to win Hunk of the Month awards in a rush, in part due to the appalling acne he suffered with.
Not that he was ugly (as he states in the book: “I knew I was ugly” – he wasn’t, he had a kind of gnarled charm about him).
However, in arguably the most heartbreaking few pages of Ham on Rye, Bukowski recalls watching his peers celebrate their youth at a prom, whilst he stood outside looking in with bandages swathed across his face due to his acne.
In later life Bukowski alienated himself from society, thrived on solitude, and was essentially a social outcast. It’s clear to see why – due to sheer bad luck he wasn’t able to fit into his era.
Morose? No, sir!
Despite such difficulties and similar reminiscing, this isn’t a miserable read. The book is sprinkled with Bukowski’s trademark dry sense of humour. This is a big tribute to the man – there was nothing lofty about him.
Some authors seem to believe, once they’re published, they’re above everyone else, but Bukowski knew his place and what he liked: gambling at racetracks, classical music, poetry, and beer.
We’d like to say it was the writer’s sense of humility which led to this, but that’s not what he was about. Very much his own man, he simply distanced himself from the rest of humanity but inadvertently connected with a generation when Post Office was published.
Why was it such a hit? As his writing appeals to us due to many of our lifelong dealings with difficulties and missteps (particularly with work). It’s an intrinsic appreciation.
Ham on Rye is, as a result, arguably Bukowski’s best piece of writing as it’s his most humane work; his other books breathe misanthropic contempt over the social structure he was forced to live under, but in Ham on Rye we get a glimpse of a beautifully heartrending youth spent in the build up to World War II.
Some literary fans out there suggest only men can possibly enjoy Bukowski’s barely legible scribbling as he was a depraved alcoholic and misogynist. This is nonsense and a fatuous approach to a brilliant writer’s work – plus, we know plenty of women who love him, including cultural goddess Maria Popova of Brain Pickings.
We must admit our liberal leanings are somewhat disturbed by Mr. Bukowski’s general objectification of women in his writing (we won’t be covering his disappointing novel Women from his canon as it was a misguided text, although brilliantly followed up by Ham on Rye).
There’s a very real and peculiar morality in his prose and it’s this that endeared him so enormously to his army of fans.
Yet Bukowski continues to draw in harsh critics. On one British journalism site (a student driven one which was essentially a subpar version of the odious Buzzfeed – oh yes, we went there!) we came across a female journalist who claimed Bukowski was rubbish; she called for an article to be written explaining why men are obsessed with him.
His writing certainly isn’t for everyone, but his work isn’t aimed directly at men. Nor was Bukowski some far-right oddball who considered women sex objects – it has to be remembered he was a compassionate man who had close relationships with women and his books tell the tale of his alter-ego: Henry Chinaski.
Primarily, his writing deals with the drudgery of working existence, particularly during the Depression era in America.
Anyone who has worked a tedious job on minimum wage for power tripping, moronic superiors earning three times as much will appreciate this. As he wrote in Factotum:
“How in the hell could a person enjoy being awakened at 6:30 a.m. by an alarm clock, leap out of bed, dress, force-feed, shit, piss, brush teeth and hair, and fight traffic to get to a place where essentially you made lots of money for somebody else and were asked to be grateful for the opportunity to do so?”
It’s this world-weary, unequivocal verdict on life in general which makes him relevant and popular to this day, in an era where work is seemingly 24/7 and that’s if you’re somehow lucky enough to find yourself a job.
As further proof of his abilities, the man reeled off these heady machinations with a perfectly timed and hilariously drôle sense of humour – Post Office and Factotum are absolutely hilarious.
Thusly, we must conclude, Bukowski’s work was not crap, misogynistic, or for men looking for a booze-fuelled laugh. It’s timeless, ever-relevant work, and it came from the mind of a wise and downtrodden individual. Read Ham on Rye and you’ll understand what we mean.