I don’t have a storied past with Charles Bukowski. I got acquainted with him through Brandon Boyd of Incubus. He was a guest at an MTV show and he was asked who his favorite writer is, and he answered Charles Bukowski. I was probably 15 and could not afford books yet, so I read what I could about him and his works online.
The other week, I was looking to add another book to my Haruki Murakami collection, and there it was peaking through “Dance, Dance, Dance” and “Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World”, “HAM ON RYE”. It was the only copy on the shelf. Iloilo city is not entirely a city where you can find every literature you want and ordering things online would just double the item’s price. It was a little bit serendipitous. It was a little bit serendipitious.
Ham on Rye is known as an autobiographical novel where Charles Bukowski retells his childhood, adolescence and how he found his way to writing. It also has the most intriguing first line in a novel, “The first thing I remember is being under something.” which could probably symbolize how he started at the bottom. It was fun to read. I ate every word like they are my favorite sandwich. When you think your life sucks, think about how the children of the 1940’s struggle with war and famine which to an outsider’s point view is basically an impending apocalypse. The world outside is struggling, your home is a wreck and you don’t even know what to make of yourself.
Although the novel is set in pre-World War II, everything is strangely identifiable. The protagonist, Henry Chinaski, is like you. He is the self you don’t want to end up with. He is Charles Bukowski before he became the writer everyone wanted to be like. His honesty is scary. His courage is praiseworthy. You want to be like him because he was able to escape all of the horse shit he was forced to take while growing up.
Probably the best lesson of Ham on Rye is choice. Henry choose to stand up from his bullies. He choose to take his father’s beating until he could not feel the pain anymore. He choose not to go the war because he has reasons. And most of all Henry Chinaski choose his path, the one that lead him to becoming Charles Bukowski.
I had to put it down every other chapter to prolong that indescribable feeling you get when you read a great book. He is funny. He is sad. He is all what he has become. You read a Charles Bukowski poem and you realize that there is a well that flows with creativity and wisdom resulting from years of struggle both external and internal. It is a well where you could look at, and find yourself behind its ripples.
The title Ham on Rye is an undisclosed riddle. Is it a nod to Catcher in the Rye? The tone is similar but Charles Bukowski is larger, whereas J.D. Salinger is all narcissism. Is it a reference to alcohol? The book sounds like an alcohol driven prose on its surface. But many say that it is pertaining to Bukowski’s favorite sandwich which is very fitting because the book seems like a good piece of his life.