Every morning, my commute to work is a strategic one. I rush to the very edge of the platform, shoving aside tourists who aimlessly congregate in the center. They’re too busy relishing in the newfound joys of foreign public transportation to realize that the platform is middle-heavy. The person-to-cart ratio is like a parabola—the two opposite ends have less exasperated humans competing for empty seats in their section—it’s quite mathematic. If I’m getting on a subway car, I’m getting a goddamn seat. This is partially because I thoroughly enjoy my subway-reading ritual, and I cannot fully become engrossed in a book if a stranger’s armpit looms five inches away from my face. It is also because I am astoundingly lazy.
On this particular morning, as I’m embarking on a new novel-journey with Charles Bukowski’s Ham on Rye*, some brilliant fellow passenger decides it would be acceptable to engage in small talk with me. Am I the only one who thinks that reading a book is the visual equivalent of having headphones in your ears and listening to music? Don’t speak to me. You are being rude while pretending to be nice, which makes you even more ill mannered. The exemption to this rule is if you are a young, good-looking male, asking me pointed questions about the book I’m reading. Or if you are Jake Gyllenhaal and you happen to be sitting next to me, in which case you can do whatever you please. ~Jake Gyllenhaal and the subway~*
Thankfully, the monster got off on the next stop and I was allowed to begin this beautiful book. I personally prefer pastrami on rye, but to each his own—Bukowski was never one to follow the crowd, after all. His extensive list of literary publications ranges from short poems to full-blown novels, and his semi-autobiographical pieces often portray him in a loner light. This novel is no exception. Using the pseudonym Henry Chinaski, it is an unapologetic account of his blighted path from childhood to young adulthood, growing up in Los Angeles during the Great Depression. Fun times! Often the brunt of physical fights and the poster-boy for athletic disappointment, Chinaski is denounced by the majority of his peers as a renegade from the “mainstream”. In fact, he enjoys being alone; when boys do latch themselves on to him, their company is unwelcome and he feels that they embody a weakness that he does not wish to be associated with. For instance, in response to an English class assignment on “The Value of Friendship”, he writes an essay titled “The Value of No Friendship At All”, which triumphantly receives a “D” (Bukowski, 161). He simply prefers to operate independently, and this brutally honest predilection contributes to the misconstrual of his character.
The novel centers on violence and bitterness, directed towards both his classmates and family. His father is a truly awful man who mercilessly beats him with a razor strop for things as trivial as missing a blade of grass while mowing. I honestly thought—and actually hoped—that at some point Chinaski would murder his soulless dad. I love noting whom the author dedicates his/her book to and pondering why they are the chosen one(s). In this case, Bukowski says his novel is “for all the fathers”… as in, this book is a how-to for dads who strive to be dicks.
As he ages, Chinaski’s antisocial tendencies amplify and he is consistently hostile in his interactions with others. He has an obsession with possessing a “badness” related to being a man, which results in a douchey, goon-like overcompensation. For example, he tries to get the most demerits at school, drinks himself to oblivion on a regular basis, and arbitrarily picks fights with boys who can clearly beat his ass. God, I am so thankful that I am a woman. Still, the range of the novel is intentional—while he is not the most likeable guy, readers are sympathetic to his rocky past and joyless upbringing.
To cope with life, Chinaski finds solace in reading and writing…and that’s pretty much it. He claims, “Words were things that could make your mind hum. If you read them and let yourself feel the magic, you could live without pain, with hope, no matter what happened to you” (Bukowski, 152). Not only were his novels a form of much-needed therapy, he could also look up to the authors for guidance, reassurance, and relatability. He states, “To me, these men who had come into my life from nowhere were my only chance. They were the only voices that spoke to me” (Bukowski, 152). He appreciates books that don’t bullshit (and then he turns around and writes some non-bullshitting books himself).
Speaking of bullshit, Chinaski thinks people are full of it. Ham on Rye is a coming-of-age novel set in a hardship-ridden time when you wouldn’t want to be any age at all, much less have to navigate potential career-paths and figure out women. Of course he’s angst-y! Chinaski is basically a less annoying version of Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye, mainly in that he communicates his cynicism in a more focused way. He believes that finding a job is essentially a forced choosing between the lesser of multiple evils. Ruminating on this dilemma, he admits, “I had no interest in anything. I had no idea how I was going to escape… But there was no place to go. Suicide? Jesus Christ, just more work. I felt like sleeping for five years but they wouldn’t let me” (Bukowski, 175). Yet as he delves deeper into this desire for nothingness in a meaningless world, he discovers an obscure sense of superiority. “The life of the sane, average man was dull, worse than death” and he’d rather reason realistically than pretend that everything is fine (Bukowski, 274). Life is not always Chili’s and rainbows, unfortunately, but better to face the facts than act like one of Caulfield’s “phonies”.
This novel is a good book to throw open when you feel bad about yourself and you don’t want a fake, hearty slap on the back and a bogus encouragement that things will get better. Instead, you want someone to sit down next to you at the bar, hand you a drink, and agree that things suck. Furthermore, Bukoswki keeps things interesting with his acerbic wit. Like when he discusses the draft, saying, “as for me, I had no desire to go to war to protect the life I had or what future I might have…with Hitler around, maybe I’d even get a piece of ass now and then and more than a week allowance” (Bukowski, 236). Nothing like a Hitler joke to really confirm your lack of national pride. Overall, Ham on Rye receives 4 out of 5 camel humps. The content is entertaining and hauntingly genuine, but there are moments when Bukowski’s unrestrained vulgarity is a tad bit overboard for my taste. Every book needs a little boorishness to spice it up, but it burns my mouth a little too much to earn the full five humps.
*Bukowski, Charles. Ham on Rye. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1982. Print.
*Yakas, Ben. “Photo: Everyone in NYC Has Sat Next To Jake Gyllenhaal On The Subway.” Gothamist: Arts & Entertainment., 21 Nov. 2014. Web. 17 Dec. 2014.