Saturday, March 2, 2013

Ham On Rye, by Charles Bukowski

Staff Review by Chris Saliba

Ham on Rye continues Bukowski's existential themes of alienation within American society and the self stripped back to its barest essence. 

Ham On Rye (1982) is Charles Bukowski’s fourth novel, and could be described as a ‘coming of age’ story. The central character, Henry Chinaski, is the same autobiographical anti-hero who also appears in the previous three novels, Post Office (1971), Factotum (1975) and Women (1978). Unlike those first three novels that concern themselves with a dead end world of sex, work, drinking and gambling, Ham On Rye chronicles Henry Chinaski’s progress from childhood to young adulthood. The novel ends with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbour, and Henry Chinaski responding to this drama by shrugging his shoulders indifferently, a thoroughly disenfranchised American youth.

Bukowski’s novels don’t appear to have any particular themes or points of view. If anything, his work strongly resists meaning. His writings are almost anti-meaning. Bukowski eschews ideology, preferring to present the world as he finds it, without setting it within a cosy narrative form. Stuff just happens in a haphazard fashion, and it’s either funny, ugly, stupid or any other number of things. What holds your attention is Bukowski’s plain, honest style and simple determination to get his own truth out there.

His own truth, indeed, is a fascinating and compelling one. The America of the 1920s and 1930s, if you were on the bottom rung of society, was no picnic. Bukowski, through his alter ego, Henry Chinaski, describes a horrible childhood, brought up in tough and unforgiving neigbourhoods, by careless parents he did not and could not love. Bukowski / Chinaski describes the complete flip side of the sunny American dream. In poor depression era America, people are crude, stupid, superstitious and just plain ignorant. If this novel reminded me of anything, it was Australian writer Ruth Park’s tale of the slums, The Harp in the South (1948). Except Ham On Rye is more deeply personal and direct.

Many consider Ham On Rye to be Bukowski’s best novel. It’s been my favourite so far. Its popularity remains no doubt due to its honesty and humour. It also has a deeper appeal due to its unconscious existential quality. Henry Chinaski, a young man who feels strangely alienated from his country, in the end says that America is not really worth fighting for. Patriotism is for the rich, who own the country. The poor are not patriotic, because they have nothing to lose.

Henry Chinaski doesn’t believe in much. The only thing he can truly believe in is himself, alone, apart from family and society, and with no enduring friendships. Henry Chinaski is a modern persona stripped right back to its barest essence. People searching for meaning in a complex consumer society and finding none, no doubt find Bukowski’s deeply ambivalent writings a comfort. 

Ham on Rye, by Charles Bukowski. Published by Canongate. ISBN: 9780857861764   RRP: $22.99