The story is told in first-person through the fictional lens of Henry Chinaski. Starting from a young age, each section is written in the voice of that time period, which makes the book almost feel like a diary. The reader soon becomes caught up in Chinaski’s life as we witness the change in his maturity, the progression of his thoughts, and his gradual switch in perception of the events and people around him. And yet seven-year-old Chinaski still sounds similar to twenty-five year old Chinaski, which is where the genius in this book lies — Bukowski manages to write in a singular and unique voice and yet stretch it over a period of years, moving seamlessly between time periods without sacrificing the authentic voice of his central character and narrator.
And Bukowski doesn’t hold back or try to sugar coat anything. Bad or good, it’s all here for everyone to read in graphic detail. He takes us step by step through his tough upbringing with an abusive father, his sexual awakening in his early teens (with Henry suffering a ridiculous level of horniness which every male should be able to relate to), his torturous confidence-crippling skin condition, his propensity towards random acts of violence, and his eventual decline into a directionless, misogynistic, womanising, borderline alcoholic with nothing to live for, no one to die for, and nothing to look forward to. Bukowski portrays Chinaski as lost and confused — maybe even hurt and insecure — but most importantly, he comes across as real.
Ham On Rye may not appeal to those who prefer heavily structured and manipulative genre books. There’s no plot as such, no deliberate structure, no twists, and no real direction, other than forward, from one moment in his life to the next. The focus is as sporadic as the main character’s is, and that’s the point. His whole world is just one day at a time, one event at a time: the next fight, the next lay, the next drink. And we’re given a roadside view of it all, as depressing as it can sometimes be. There’s no happy ending, no life lesson learned or big character change at the end. Bukowksi just gives his readers the truth and feeds them wisdom through his own pitfalls.
Above all, the book is hilariously sarcastic. It’s the equivalent of having a politically incorrect, foul-mouthed, sexist granddad tell you a lifetime of anecdotes. But don’t be blinded by the filth. The book is packed with insight. Bukowski offers a lot more depth below the surface. It’s merely hidden by his brashness and ego.
In short, if you’re not easily offended and have a good sense of humour, check out Ham on Rye. It might just be one of the funniest books you’ll ever read.
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