Charles Bukowski’s Ham on Rye: The Good Fight

Ham on Rye by Charles BukowskiCharles Bukowski’s fourth novel, Ham on Rye, was written in 1982, after he had found success as a writer, moved from East Hollywood to the harborside village of San Pedro, and had established his relationship with Linda Lee Beighle, whom he would marry and stay with the rest of his life. Ham on Rye is an autobiographical novel about Bukowski’s childhood during the Great Depression, and from this vantage point of relative security and well-being and love, he could look back on the harrowing forces that formed him in a way that transforms his personal pain into a brilliant work about what it is to be human.

The basic plot of the novel—and Bukowski’s early life—is well known. Bukowski was beaten and psychologically abused by his father repeatedly and frequently from roughly the age of six to eleven. Not long after that he came down with severe acne that turned his face and back into a mass of boils, permanently scarred him, and brought down upon him what might best be described as a medieval course of medical torture as “treatment,” which did no good and led to his mother and grandmother literally performing an exorcism on him.

I’m sure that about now many of you are thinking the novel sounds like a bummer, and times are hard enough without being dragged down into this poor guy’s personal hell. But as usual with Bukowski, despite all the horror in the novel, the book fills your head with light.

Bukowski never descends into self-pity. For Bukowski, every torment is a source of revelation and strength. Here is a passage from after the doctors have ordered his acne to be treated with electric needles, but the acne never gets better:

I decided that everything that they were doing for me was useless. I figured that at best the needle would leave scars on me for the remainder of my life. That was bad enough but it wasn’t what I really minded. What I minded was that they didn’t know how to deal with me. I sensed this in their discussions and in their manner. They were hesitant, uneasy, yet also somehow disinterested and bored. Finally it didn’t matter what they did. They just had to do something—anything—because to do nothing would be unprofessional

They experimented on the poor and if that worked they used the treatment on the rich. And if it didn’t work, there would still be more poor left over to experiment upon.

And the beatings from his father, which his mother never tries to stop, don’t turn him in on himself. They lead not only to greater understanding, but to a determination to live a greater revolt.

I looked at my father, at his hands, his face, his eyebrows, and I knew that this man had nothing to do with me. He was a stranger. My mother was non-existent. I was cursed. Looking at my father I saw nothing but indecent dullness. Worse, he was even more afraid to fail than most others. Centuries of peasant blood and peasant training. The Chinaski bloodline had been thinned by a series of peasant-servants who had surrendered their real lives for fractional and illusionary gains. Not a man in the line who said, “I don’t want a house, I want a thousand houses, now!

But young Henry Chinaski knows he’s not just up against his father, or his social class. There’s a scene when Hank is in sixth grade when the Depression has taken a turn for the worse. People are scavenging in the vacant lots for weeds to eat, fist fights are breaking out between the neighborhood men and there’s lots of talk of second and third mortgages. Hank comes upon a small white cat cornered in a yard by a bulldog. There’s a pack of neighborhood kids in the yard egging on the bulldog and Henry wants to save the cat, but doesn’t have the nerve. He’s afraid of both the kids and the bulldog. Then he sees adults watching the scene from the windows—even a man with a job, not just waiting for the kill but wanting it. Hank feels sick at his lack of courage.

There were too many of them.

The bulldog moved closer. I couldn’t watch the kill. I felt a great shame at leaving the cat like that. There was always the chance that the cat might try to escape, but I knew that they would prevent it. That cat wasn’t only facing the bulldog, it was facing Humanity.

The novel ends with Bukowski’s friend Becker, a talented writer, marching off to World War II where he will get machine-gunned to death, and Chinaski getting fired from his first job for beating up an upper-class customer who’s tormented him for years at school. Chinaski starts making “practice runs down to skid row to get ready for my future.”

I knew that I wasn’t entirely sane. I still knew, as I had as a child, that there was something strange about myself. I felt as if I were destined to be a murderer, a bank robber, a saint, a rapist, a monk, a hermit. I needed an isolated place to hide. Skid row was disgusting. The life of the sane, average man was dull, worse than death. There seemed to be no possible alternative. Education also seemed to be a trap. The little education I had allowed myself had made me more suspicious. What were doctors, lawyers, scientists? They were just men who allowed themselves to be deprived of their freedom to think and act as individuals. I went back to my shack and drank …

Ham on Rye reminds me of some of Jack London’s better work—“To Build a Fire,” or Call of the Wild. The forces that Bukowski’s narrator struggles against are so enormous and eternal, they are almost geological, and both the writer and his character know it. To revolt against such forces and insist on being a man, on one’s own terms, despite near certain failure, and to laugh at one’s own hubris even as the inevitable smack-down happens, are what Bukowski is all about.

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