Saturday, August 29, 2009

Ham On Rye - Charles Bukowski


1982; 283 pages. Genre : Modern American Literature; Semi-autobiography. Overall Rating : B.
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With the subtlety of a sledgehammer, Charles Bukowski introduces you to his alter ego - Henry "Hank" Chinaski. Ham On Rye covers the first 21 years of Chinaski's life - starting in 1920, going through the Great Depression and ending with the attack on Pearl Harbor. In addition to hard times, Henry hails from a tough neighborhood in L.A., and has an abusive father, and a spineless mother to contend with at home.
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What's To Like...
Henry is the classic anti-hero; sporting a crappy attitude towards school and home, friends and foes, jobs and bosses, girls amd women, and just about everything else. There's only two things he likes in the world - drinking and literature. He devours authors like D.H. Lawrence, Sinclair Lewis, Aldous Huxley, Upton Sinclair, Turgenev, and Gorky.
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The book is a quick read - there are no nuances here. But there is a lot of dark humor, keen insight, and a catchy writing style.. Here's an excerpt :
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"The rich guys like to dart their cars in and out, swiftly, sliding up, burning rubber, their cars glistening in the sunlight as the girls gathered around. Classes were a joke, they were all going somewhere for college, classes were just a routine laugh, they got good grades, you seldom saw them with books, you just saw them burning more rubber, gunning from the curb with their cars full of squealing and laughing girls. I watched them with my 50 cents in my pocket. I didn't even know how to drive a car.
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Meanwhile the poor and the lost and the idiots continued to flock around me. I had a place I liked to eat under the football grandstand. I had my brown bag with my two bologna sandwiches. They came around, "Hey, Hank, can I eat with you?"
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There's a lot of cussing in Ham On Rye. Indeed, I was hard-pressed to find a stretch of sentences for the excerpt that didn't have cuss words in it. There's also a lot of drinking and fighting. If Henry can't find a stranger to fight, he'll start punching out one of his friends, then get drunk with him afterwards. There isn't a lot of sex, although there's a lot of talking and dreaming about it. By the end of the book, Henry still hasn't scored with a girl. Heck, he hasn't even reached first base.
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Laureate of the low-life; poet of the punks...
Opinions are mixed about Bukowski. He's the polar opposite of John Milton. But he can weave a story. Open Ham On Rye to any page, and you'll find a captivating tale. I think he could hold the reader's interest talking about watching paint dry.
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I give Ham On Rye a "B". I liked the book, even though I couldn't relate to Bukowski's/Chinaski's life. At the end, it was obvious that Henry was going to turn out to be a homeless drunk or a published author. Or both. In real life, that's exactly what happened to Bukowski.
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This is a book to read when you're feeling rebellious, anti-establishment, and smart-mouthed. Put on a Sex Pistols CD and enjoy the story.

4 comments:

Amanda said...

I always hear of Bukowski as a "guy" sort of writer (whatever that means). He intimidates me.

hamilcar barca said...

this was definitely a "guy book". there's no reason to feel intimidated about Bukowski, but i don't think you'd enjoy Ham On Rye.

saveophelia said...

It's interesting that the main character is in love with some of the same authors that I happen to love! I think I will have to give this a try - I don't quite know why it hasn't come up in my reading yet!

Thanks for the honest review.

hamilcar barca said...

saveophelia, if you do read HoR, i'd be interested in hearing your opinion of it.

the reviews i've read of it by women are generally positive, but they're few and far between.