Ham On Rye by Charles Bukowski
Dedication in Ham On Rye: ‘For all the Fathers’
*This review has some spoilers*
There was a time in my life when thinking of Father’s Day would conjure up the prose of Charles Bukowski, as opposed to the angelic verse you find in the greeting card section of your local shop. It’s been a passing thought, more than once, that I would prefer a brand of greeting that was honest about the failings of the recipient, not some gilded version of what they could have been, had they been someone completely different. Why must those of us with the misfortune of having bad parents be tortured twice a year into pretending that our dear old dads taught us everything we know, or how our magnificent moms used to cut the crusts off our nut butter and organic preserve sandwiches, just right?
When I used to think of fathers – the ones that most of my classmates seemed to have, those on sitcoms, or even the one my mother had – I would get a little Bukowski-esque: bitter, resentful, and then after enough alcohol, apathetic. Father’s day was nothing but a week-long leadup to a depressing day with torturous reminders that everyone else seemed to get handed a protective and nurturing knight for their Dad, and instead, I would spend the rest of my life trying to heal from the gaping wounds left by mine. My father was a toxic mixture of Bukowski the drunk, and his strop-wielding maker, with some extra poison for good measure. This review, were he alive today, would be the closest thing to a tribute that he would ever receive.
I want to be clear, I hold nothing against those good people out there that were fortuitous enough to have such shining examples of greatness at the helm of their beginnings, at least in this stage of my journey. My bitterness surrounding the issue of these commemorative days has more to do with a system that inflates them into commercial spending sprees and does so by media manipulation and over-saturation throughout society. (Please note, I am now a cog in this machine, as of late, with my post about the Top 5 Books For Dad, so welcome to the height of hypocrisy).
Of course, in the last decade this type of toxic marketing, amongst others, has become amplified via the monster that is social media, properly slaying nations and their children. This beast is a malevolent force that reminds a person what they are lacking, in glaring and constant ways, thus pushing insecurities deeper, whilst eroding confidence and drive. Sounds almost like what happened to Bukowski, except for him it was due to a different ogre: his father.
Life wasn’t easy for Henry, the literary stand-in of Bukowski’s creation, and agonist of this semi-autobiography, Ham on Rye. One doesn’t know exactly what parts of the book weren’t truly Bukowski’s story, but you don’t have to look too far into his other work to see the pain and trauma that he asserts came at the hands of his detestable, racist, and raunchy father.
Henry was a young boy growing up in the depression era, a time which saw many families with fathers out of work, his being no exception. Poverty and malnutrition were commonplace in his neighbourhood, but his was the only father that simultaneously pretended they were rich.
‘We all came from depression families and most of us were ill-fed, yet we had grown up to be huge and strong. Most of us, I think, got little love from our families, and we didn’t ask for love and kindness from anybody.’
Henry’s father would see beans and weenies on his plate and boast of how they were eating the finest meal. He would rise early each morning and leave the house, only to return after the length of a typical workday, just so the neighbours wouldn’t know that he too was unemployed. He was larger than life.
‘I heard my father come in. He always slammed the door, walked heavily, and talked loudly. He was home. After a few moments the bedroom door opened. He was six feet two, a large man. Everything vanished, the chair I was sitting in, wallpaper, the walls, all of my thoughts. He was the dark covering the sun, the violence of him made everything else utterly disappear. He was all ears, nose, mouth, I couldn’t look at his eyes, there was only his red angry face.’
All of that emasculation, frustration, and delusion resulted in an angry tyrant who felt no weight about taking things out on his son. Playing with local ‘hooligans,’ writing stories, or the old standby: a failed attempt to remove every last blade of rogue grass missed with the mower; anything could result in Henry incurring his father’s strop, often 2-3 times a week.
As this terrible man continued to treat Henry in these vile ways, while his mother just sat there agreeing with everything he said and calling him ‘Daddy,’ *cringe* I could feel my jaw clenching. I was reminded of the man we meet in the first chapter of the book, Henry’s alcoholic grandfather, and questioned what role he had to play in who his father had become. It is likely to have been considerable, as both his uncles were also alcoholics, and his aunt was estranged from the family. Shit rolls downhill, as they say.
“My father didn’t like people. He didn’t like me. “Children should be seen and not heard,” he told me.”
I became hopeful for a moment, with the appreciation his writing received from his fifth-grade teacher for an embellished paper that he had submitted about having attended a local visit from President Hoover. This gave Henry a sense of pride and satisfaction for the first time. He had a skill, with value. He had found currency, not only with his teacher but with the other students, even the bullies. But it wasn’t enough to last, and he was soon destitute once again.
Given Henry’s isolation from other children whilst growing up, and his needing to withstand his childhood within the confines of his mind, he acquired a propensity to daydream, and a survivour’s need of dissociation. Under these circumstances, it is understandable that he became the writer he did, and explains both his imagination and his inability to form real connections with others throughout his journey.
‘… since some people had told me that I was ugly, I always preferred shade to the sun, darkness to the light.’
Henry had a protective nature towards animals and other vulnerable beings in general, a quality that I’ve noticed in many others who have lived a life mired in trauma. He had an affinity for collecting strays and misfits. At school, the outcasts were drawn to him, and whether he liked it or not, he couldn’t shake them because he knew what it felt like to be cast aside. When he wasn’t able to sufficiently protect whatever sorry soul he was in defence of, he castigated himself for being a weakling.
‘He was so pitiful that I couldn’t tell him to get lost. He was like a mongrel dog, starved and kicked. Yet it didn’t make me feel good going around with him. But since I knew that mongrel dog feeling, I let him hang around.’
In 7th grade, he tried alcohol for the first time at a friend’s house. Life began for Henry that fateful day, as the clouds parted and the sun shone on his face from the heavens above; after 13 years he had finally found a way to feel good.
‘Never had I felt so good. It was better than masturbating. I went from barrel to barrel. It was magic. Why hadn’t someone told me? With this, life was great, a man was perfect, nothing could touch him.’
Except for his father and the strop, especially when he found out his son was partaking in an activity that he despised. After seeing the effects of alcohol on his father and brothers, Henry’s father wanted nothing to do with drunks, which no doubt made the drug all the more enticing to our rebellious antihero.
A violent and soul-crushing family life wasn’t all that Henry had to contend with, as he had hormonal issues that resulted in debilitating acne. The vivid descriptions of the medical procedures that he had to withstand, and the pain that he had to endure multiple times, for months, were hard to read. Other than the friend he eventually found in alcohol, there was no form of solace or saving grace for Henry throughout this story, save for a kind nurse that he never saw again once his invasive acne treatments were complete. I felt perpetually sad for him, increasingly so.
The beauty of healing through art was one of few tools that Henry availed himself of, as he spent his spare time recovering from his devastating acne by filling a notebook with the escapades of his hero and creation, Baron Von Himmlen.
‘The Baron went on doing magic things. Half the notebook was filled with Baron Von Himmlen. It made me feel good to write about the Baron. A man needed somebody. There wasn’t anybody around, so you had to makeup somebody, make him up to be like a man should be. It wasn’t make-believe or cheating. The other way was make-believe and cheating: living your life without a man like him around.’
I also empathised with his existential confrontation with God during those lonely days of healing. I’m sure religion and faith are laughable things when you are a young man suffering through the hardships of the depression-era, unloving and abusive parents, and trapped in absolute isolation. It is almost certain that one would feel forsaken.
‘All right, God, say that you are really there. You have put me in this fix. You want to test me. Suppose I test you? Suppose I say that You are not there. You’ve given me a supreme test with my parents and with these boils. I think that I have passed your test. I am tougher than You. If You will come down here right now, I will spit into Your face, if You have a face… I think you have been picking on me too much so I am asking You to come down here so I can put You to the test.’
The library was a saviour for Henry, as it has been for much struggling youth, myself included. He was thrilled by the possibility found in the words of others, and the healing that reading books can offer.
There came a point when Henry needed to forge his path, and find his own identity; one that wasn’t an extension of his father’s. He found that route through alcohol and a tough-guy persona. He was proud when his coach from middle school referred to him as one of the ‘bad guys,’ or when the girls were shocked by his brutish antics. At least he could be someone of his own making.
At times disgusting, and others hilarious, it was always interesting to read the locker room banter between the young lads, where Henry vacillated between victim and perpetrator, and they all, collectively, struggled to find out who they were, and where their place was in the hierarchy that is high school.
Bukowski pontificated on the insufferableness of the limited choices for a young and poor person making their way through school. How things are tailor-made to break one’s spirit, to better facilitate the transition and assimilation into the adult world, and I found myself in agreement.
‘The problem was you had to keep choosing between one evil or another, and no matter what you chose, they sliced a little bit more off you, until there was nothing left. At the age of 25 most people were finished. A whole god-damned nation of assholes driving automobiles, eating, having babies, doing everything in the worst way possible, like voting for the presidential candidate who reminded them most of themselves.’
He was bitter and felt it unfair that he would have to work a dead-end job because he didn’t have the means to be properly educated to get a high-paying one. He claimed that his apathy and lack of drive were a direct result of his father’s desire to be rich, which in turn made him want to be a bum. Part of that is likely true, but another aspect could be that he made himself believe he didn’t want anything and became lazy so as not to be exceedingly disappointed by not being able to have these things afforded the lucky ones. A get them before they get me, mentality.
‘Now, I thought, pushing my cart along, I have this job. Is this to be it? No wonder men robbed banks. There were too many demeaning jobs. Why the hell wasn’t I a superior court judge or a concert pianist? Because it took training and training cost money. But I didn’t want to be anything anyhow. And I was certainly succeeding.’
I was pulling for Henry, I wanted him to have a loving and dependable person stand up for him in his early life. I think that would have made all the difference, and that he might not have remained stagnant in his development if there were someone there to show him about love. But alas, there was no guardian angel, and he just continued to exist. Sure, it was on his terms, as he bolted from home early and lived in rooming houses; struggling, boozing, and brawling. It wasn’t what I would call, even mildly, ‘healthy’ living, never mind whether it was truly enjoyable.
Even as he was adamant in the later chapters of the book that his life was how he wanted it – without the anchor of a job, a wife, or kids – he offers glimpses into the loneliness that shrouded him. There were parts of Ham on Rye when Henry would request the company of strangers, almost begging for them to join him in his drinking binges. Those were the times when I felt the saddest for him. His defeat, however, was laced with pride, as he appreciated himself too much to simply just end it. I found this excerpt to be a clear view into his bitterness that was forever gnawing at his soul.
‘Sitting there drinking, I considered suicide, but I felt a strange fondness for my body, my life. Scarred as they were, they were mine. I would look into the dresser mirror and grin: if you’re going to go, you might as well take eight, or ten or twenty of them with you…’
After I had finished reading this tragedy of a broken life I was left with pity, sadness, and an overwhelming sense of melancholy for a man that was too numb to feel any of these things himself. His prose is sparse but concise and pointed. I agreed with some of his commentary on society and war, but I didn’t find his words to be overly profound, so my rating sits at 4 peaches for Ham On Rye. It should be noted that my original rating was 3.5, but after assessing the book and his words deeper for the writing of this review, I’ve bumped it up. I will read the other Henry Chinaski books, partly because I’m curious about how much of a trainwreck this guy will become, but also for the dark humour bestrewn within the writing.
As for me and my Bukowski-like bitterness, I’ve developed an appreciation of what Mums and Dads should be, which I’ve acquired through life with my chosen clan, post-family-from-hell. I would surely hide in a technology-free zone, on the second Sunday of every May and June for the rest of eternity, drowning myself in spirits and the caustic words of Bukowski had I not my son’s father to love, or my cherished position as Mummy to fill. The reading of this book has reminded me how I’d narrowly averted that boozy bullet. I am forever grateful to my guys for lifting me out of my previous vitriolic existence, and I can’t help but feel sorry for Bukowski for not having had the same chance. Who knows? He clearly and repeatedly stated throughout his works that this sort of saving was something he not only didn’t need but was repelled by. Instead, he seemed to find solace in the bottom of a bottle, and redemption through words on a page, so maybe in the end that was good enough for him.
Happy Father’s Day to the amazing Daddies out there, like my son’s. The world would be much darker (and ‘drunker’) without you.