Review: Charles Bukowski – “Ham on Rye: A Novel”

This book is like reading Faulkner, without all of the fuss, with more fun, and perhaps without the same levels of philosophy and psychology. It’s arty without being hoity-toity about it all. A simple language is used, and bombs go off without much fanfare. It’s astounding in the way that it mixes observations with inner thoughts from the main character.

From the very first paragraph:

The first thing I remember is being under something. It was a table, I saw a table leg, I saw the legs of the people, and a portion of the tablecloth hanging down. It was dark under there, I liked being under there. It must have been in Germany. I must have been between one and two years old. It was 1922. I felt good under the table. Nobody seemed to know that I was there. There was sunlight upon the rug and on the legs of the people. I liked the sunlight. The legs of the people were not interesting, not like the tablecloth which hung down, not like the table leg, not like the sunlight.

The book is strewn with subtle and horrendously beautiful writings about the patriarchal, capitalistic stuff that happen:

There were continual fights. The teachers didn’t seem to know anything about them. And there was always trouble when it rained. Any boy who brought an umbrella to school or wore a raincoat was singled out. Most of our parents were too poor to buy us such things. And when they did, we hid them in the bushes. Anybody seen carrying an umbrella or wearing a raincoat was considered a sissy. They were beaten after school. David’s mother had him carry an umbrella whenever it was the least bit cloudy.

The above shows how this book, published in 1982, hasn’t really changed much over most of Western “society” when considering nowaday literature like Édouard Louis‘s “The End of Eddy“, which was published in 2014.

I love the way that things are written about, in a quite stoic and existentialistic fashion:

He walked over and slapped me on the ear, knocking me to the floor. The woman got up and ran out of the house and my father went after her. The woman leaped into my father’s car, started it and drove off down the street. It happened very quickly. My father ran down the street after her and the car. “EDNA! EDNA, COME BACK!”

My father actually caught up with the car, reached into the front seat and grabbed Edna’s purse. Then the car speeded up and my father was left with the purse. “I knew something was going on,” my mother told me. “So I hid in the car trunk and I caught them together. Your father drove me back here with that horrible woman. Now she’s got his car.” My father walked back with Edna’s purse. “Everybody into the house!”

We went inside and my father locked me in the bedroom and my mother and father began arguing. It was loud and very ugly. Then my father began beating my mother. She screamed and he kept beating her. I climbed out a window and tried to get in the front door. It was locked. I tried the rear door, the windows. Everything was locked. I stood in the backyard and listened to the screaming and the beating. Then the beating and the screaming stopped and all I could hear was my mother sobbing. She sobbed a long time. It gradually grew less and less and then she stopped.

There are some funny, and a lot of tragic sides to all of this. While reading the book, I often wondered whether the character caused his problems, or was just affected by them, unable to avoid it all; naturally, it all depends on from where you’re standing. The book reminded me a lot of Camus’s “The Stranger”, but that may be due to the existentialistic nature of that book, which I love.

All in all, this book makes me want to read more of Bukowski’s books. This book will linger in the back of my head for quite some time, I think.

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