I can’t decide what, particularly, about ‘Ham On Rye’ made me want to drink an entire bottle of wine. Maybe I was simply inspired by the alcoholism of the main character, Henry: As he knocked back bottle after bottle, my brain could have decided, “Hmm, wine sounds tasty.” It’s equally possible that Charles Bukowski’s unapologetically harsh storytelling shat all over my childlike sense of optimism, leaving me depressed to the point of desiring drink.
In small doses, Bukowski is refreshing. I read a collection of some of his short stories a while back, and his gritty, I-don’t-give-a-fuck writing was darkly funny and just depraved enough to be entertaining. In ‘Ham On Rye,’ Bukowski tells what I understand to be an autobiographical story of childhood, but there’s absolutely nothing halcyon or youthful about it. His main character is tired and scarred as an old man before even graduating high school.
The story opens with Henry’s first vague memories. As a child, he’s confused and held down by his asshole father. As he gets older, he discovers fighting, girls, and alcohol— but he also discovers books. That’s the one thing I loved about Henry: He was a jerk who picked fights, but he was also a dreamer. He had to be hard because the world was hard, but he retained something that you could possibly call a soul. He became a writer.
Don’t get the wrong idea here. Just because my hopelessly hopeful brain found something inspiring in ‘Ham On Rye’ doesn’t make it a nice, tidy story about a guy who overcomes hardship to follow his heart. If that’s what you want to read, this is not the book for you. There’s no sugarcoating. Some really awful stuff happens, not just your run-of-the-mill crappy childhood experiences.
I couldn’t put the book down. There’s something captivating about misery, something that goes beyond pity. Everyone’s broken, even if we aren’t broken in the same way; so Henry’s story was easy to relate to, even though my experiences have been far from identical.