I just finished reading Ham on Rye, by Charles Bukowski, and holy shit, Im happy I didn’t know this guy during his teenage years. His hard upbringing and constant struggles with kids at school turn him into a brawling alcoholic, who is quick to take on anyone who looks at him the wrong way. The book basically chronicles his life through from the time he started school, until he finally decides to drop out after only a year of community college. Along the way, he has to deal with an abusive father, who is never satisfied with anything, and takes pleasure in giving his son daily beatings. Also, he seems to be cursed with the worst skin of all time, making him feel like he isn’t even a part of society. He has absolutely no shot with the much prettier, much more middle and upper class girls he goes to school with, and he seems to always find himself toe to toe with the toughest guys in town. Eventually, he goes out on his own, but by this time, his drinking has become so bad, he fights all of his “friends” and can not find steady income. He tends to always talk about being with girls, as if he wishes it was possible, but he feels that there is no way a women would be interested in him.
When I started reading this book, I felt bad for young Henry (Bukowski’s alter ego in the book). His father set standards that he knew he would never reach. He sent him to school in a rich district, because he wanted other people to think that their family was well off, which it wasn’t. His father has lost his job during the depression, and instead of asking for help, he got in his car every morning, and pretended to go to work. He was too proud to ask anyone for a hand out. He held Henry to the same standards, always yelling at him, and calling him a loser, a lazy bum, someone who wants nothing. He was picked on at school, and in order to be able to show his face, he took to being a tough guy. This behavior was constant throughout the book. It started out as him defending himself, but soon grew to him not knowing when to keep his mouth shut. He had grown so cold to the world that he had no interest in being liked by others, and he let everyone know it.
At first, I liked it. I thought, “man, this kid has something that I don’t. The ability to really get in someone’s face when he feels taken advantage of.” It was almost inspiring in a weird kind of way. But as the book wore on, I started to wonder what the hell his problem was. He was fighting his own friends all of the time, and it seemed that most of the conversations he would have with strangers would start out “you know I can take you right?”. He based everything he would do on being a tough guy. He felt that after all he has been through, all the times he had been kicked into the dirt by life, the only thing he could do, and do well, was fight.
He could drink like a fish, and thats what I liked the most about him. He would get so fall down drunk he would throw up in his sleep. He would smoke many packs of logans a night, and almost always down more than 1 bottle of whiskey, wine, a case of beer, whatever he could afford. There is one part in the book where he meets a new group of kids. They seem like they are bad. Bank robbers, small time theives. He liked them. They had a drinking contest, in which Henry won. Along the way of course he almost fought 2 of his new drinking buddies, but ended the night 80 dollars richer. After leaving the house, the whiskey hit him all at once. He couldnt stand or walk. He opened the back door of a random car, hung out for a bit, puked all over the floor, and eventually made his way home. Other than rare occasions like this, he did most of his drinking alone. This part I liked because he was secure with himself, and his thoughts. Thats not to say he liked everything that he had become, but he enjoyed his own company, and thats important. If you cant be happy with yourself, all by yourself, then you cant be happy with other people. His drinking did make for some very memorable parts of the book, but it was also undoubtably leading to his downfall. It doesnt take a genius to figure out that when you blow all of your rent money on booze, nothing good is going to come of it.
Charles Bukowski has written more than 45 books of poetry and prose, including many popular novels. He is kind of a mans man, who wont take shit from anyone. He wants to smoke, drink, screw, and hate the world, and it was refreshing to read something that wasnt all rainbows and sunshine.
Trivia: A young, much less ugly Micky Rourke played Bukowski in the 1987 movie Barfly. Check it out.