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on 26 March 2004
I didn't know what to expect when I picked up Ham on Rye by Bukowski. I'd read some assorted poems and short stories of his that I found amusing because of their bluntness and coarseness. I found that Ham On Rye was much in the same vein: that is, the story of a non-comformist who has to pay the price in America for not selling out and becoming just another salesman or suit. Bukowski needed to follow his own music. This book is obviously autobiographical, and it depicts his rough and sad childhood: his abusive father who wouldn't cut him any slack, his skin condition that pock-marked his face and made him feel like an outcast, his alienation from school and his classmates, his alienation from most of America and the values America holds most dear: being the "alpha dog," the big "winner." Bukowski in effect is a foreigner in his own land, a socially isolated individual who escapes the cruelty of people by eventually becoming a writer and indulging in drink -- while longing for a poetry that our banal consumer society tries to squash. I love this book. It's an easy-to-read and very personal novel, which would probably be marketed today as a "memoir." I know Bukowski is NOT read in college and that's because he's generally "anti-New Yorker," anti-understatement. He's the John Belushi (think of Pluto in Animal House) of literature. His characters WILL COME OUT TALKING, LIKE THIS!!.. Reading Bukowski is an intimate experience, like reading the work of a friend or watching a friend's home-movie. He's largely a self-taught artist so his work is sometimes rough, sometimes over-the-top, sometimes sloppy -- but always full of humor and always largely entertaining and loads of fun. This is my first Bukowski novel, but it certainly won't be my last! So crack open a brew, shut off that stupid TV, kick back in your dirty shorts and read Ham on Rye. I also agree with the reviewer who recommended The Losers' Club by Richard Perez, another lively, funny novel that I could relate to.
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I have read a handful of Charles Bukowski's literary efforts but found none of them to be quite as endearing as this. The focus is on Chinaski's high school days and the way his outlook on life is steeped in cynicism due to an infliction of acne vulgaris .

The reader will be very hard pushed to find a more cynical literary character than Chinaski , and the book is entrenched in bitterness. However there are some heartbreakingly human moments such as Chinaski viewing young couples holding hands,and believing he can never live like that.
The narrative is gritty , stripped down and to the point.This perfectly suits Chinaski's clipped and dismissive viewpoint on life. Bukowski's human prose allows us to sympathise with the character as he rejects the world.
In conclusion, I would say that this book is in turns moving, witty and repulsive.It is essential for those who feel that now and again life has given them a raw deal.
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VINE VOICEon 27 February 2007
I have just finished reading Ham on Rye and as my first experience of reading Bukowski i found it really enjoyable, and definitely feel like it has given me an insight into his writing and i will look forward to reading more of his fiction in the future.

Ham on Rye describes the early life of Bukowski's alter- ego, Hank Chinaski, who features in much of his fiction. Chinaski is growing up in America between the end of the first and the start of the second World War. Being raised by an abusive father, Chinaski grows up learning to hate the world, becoming seriously disallusioned with it and descending slowly into alcoholism. Despite Hank's cynical and angry outlook i found him to be a character that i could quickly warm to and sympathise with. Knowing this book it partly autobiographical, however, makes Hank's life seem all the more saddening.

Ham on Rye shows the adolescent Chinaski and sets up the life of the down and out character that appears in other Bukowski novels. Despite it being his fourth novel, i would say that it acts as a great introduction to this character and i didn't feel any worse off having not read Bukowski's earlier novels first.

Overall, this is a powerful novel, sometimes uncomfortable, somtimes depressing but generally easy to read and enjoyable. It describes full blown adolescent angst emerging from a dysfunctional family set up. I like to think of Hank Chinaski as Holden Caulfield with attitude! Highly recommended.
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on 25 April 2005
The only Bukowski I'd read previously was Post Office, which is a bare-bones story about a man whose life is swallowed by his job at the Post Office, years passing by, and his struggle to basically try and retain something of himself (be it a woman, his drinking, his gambling - anything).
Ham On Rye features the same character (Bukowski's alter-ego Henry Chinaski), but focuses on his earlier life, going to school and university, and descending into violent alcholism. It, too, is a bare bones story - but there's much more to it. Chinaski's frustration at not wanting to be a part of anything, while at the same time wanting to be accepted, result in him being seen as nothing but a bullying drunkard. And yeah, Chinaski is an a-hole, and Bukowski makes no bones about that. But I was forever hoping he'd pull himself out of it.
A great book, and Chuck's no BS writing style is always instantly refreshing.
Check it out, if you can.
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on 28 July 2007
Ham on Rye (HOR) is a semi-autobiographical tale, written in the first person, and describing the 'rite of passage' of Bukowski's antihero "Hank Chinaski". HOR is similar in many ways to Catcher in the Rye, however unlike Salingers' protagonist Holden Caulfield, the deep depression and feelings of alienation and existential anxt experienced by Hank Chinaski are provoked by genuinely difficult circumstances. Hank is raised in a poor small town American family during the 30s depression. Suffering abuse from a sadistic father and school bullies, Hank spends hours in contemplation, reading widely and thinking of becoming a writer. Disfiguring skin boils and acne compound Hanks' predicament, leaving him unsuccessful with women, bitter, isolated, and turning to the bottle.

Hank is used as a mouthpiece to discuss the authors distaste for overly elaborate prose, and it is clear that Bukowski was trying to do something new with this novel. The prose of HOR is concise and uncomplicated, and this strengthens the clarity and emotional impact of the book, generating a palpable sense of Hanks' alienation and emotional turmoil. A friend commented on the fact that all the women in this novel are floored, pathetic and week minded characters, but so far as I can tell Bukowski is not misogynistic but universally misanthropic.

Depressing, angry, bitter, and with a cynical view of the human condition, this is my first Bukowski novel but I'll definitely be coming back for more.
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Chuck's masterpiece is his confessional novel where he uses the template devised by Ferdinand Celine to produce this great piece of work. It sups a long draught from the deep cup of cynicism fermented by Ferdie and then Bukowski spits in it for good measure before offering it around.

Then he reveals an overwhelming despair, a bile slowly brewing as he is ground into the dirt by a father who acts with a loveless leathering of belt to beat his son into righteousness. This was the old way and Bukowski shows the simmering hatred that boils over his body. Beaten at home and taunted at school, he sought solace in flights of fancy and eventually created his own private worlds. These he populated with the apparitions of his life detail as he hit the flophouses and wrote from poverty about being poor. This was the genius of Bukowski because it had been tackled by Algren, Selby, Baldwin and Wright there were still elements of idealism lingering. Bukowski wrote of the poor beyond the liberation of Marxism, Christianity and morality.

This is naked life revealed without the bath robe, make up and adobe photoshop touch up added. A Life revealed in wishing a life away, the need to drown in whisky, the abusive relationships and the glimmer of hope that one day life can be different.

Ham on Rye undermines and reaffirms the American Dream, the outsider, the German immigrant covered in boils, can make it with enough hard work. The book however tells a different story, it represents the lives of the homeless who never make it past forty. This was the opening salvo in looking at life from the bottom up and said failure was OK too, it was just another perspective. How revolutionary is that?
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on 28 June 2007
This is a truly great book and although there are many surface differences with JD Salinger's wonderful Catcher in the Rye, their similarities are much greater.

Although Henry (Hank) Chinaski and Holden Caulfield live in different decades and occupy different ends of the social spectrum, they are of the same mould. They are both non-conformists, unable to settle into their respective social groups. They both see through the superficiality of their respective worlds and are unable and unwilling to adapt themselves to it. They both see the futility of their lives, leaving them feeling alienated and alone, unable to communicate with their peers or with their disfunctional families. They are both unbending in their respective morals, revolted by injustice and bullying. They are both self-destructive, finding more solace in drink than in human relationships.

I loved this book, but thank heaven that I didn't read it as a teenager.
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on 31 August 2010
This was the first Bukowski book I ever read and I have to say that I enjoyed it very much. The story (autobiographical in nature) follows Henry Chinaski from his early childhood until he reaches manhood. It revolves around his endless struggles with his family, his friends, his surroundings, his body, his desires and his hopes (rather lack of) for the future. It is a straight, cynical, bitter and brutal account of his life. I found that Bukowski was trying to come to terms with his own origins and I am glad that he invited me along for the ride. This book felt very personal at times and at these moments it read as if an old friend was talking to you or writing you a letter. I did not find it brilliant or particularly insightful but it works well as a story and words, phrases, paragraphs and whole pages just kept flowing easily until the end.
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on 5 June 2012
I'd been suffering from 'Reader's Block' when I picked up this offering from Charles 'Hank' Bukowski.
It didn't take more than a few minutes and a couple of pages to realise I was hooked.

To date, my main brushes with Hank have been through short stories and poetry, both of which I've loved. Why I didn't immediately pick up his longer prose, I have no idea. I have no excuses any more and there are more books in the post.

Henry Chinaski is the name of the German American boy at the centre of this book. He's a solitary boy. An outsider. For lots of reasons. One of them being that he's human and growing up in a time of depression and alienation.

Mr and Mrs Chinaski are tough cookies. They're intending to make their mark in a kind of middle-class way. They're proud. Hopeful. God-fearing.

Early on, Henry introduces other relatives. There's his alcoholic uncle and grandad. Another uncle is all washed up and dying already, even though he's in his early twenties. There's his aunt and his cousins, penniless and without a man in the house since the man raped a young girl and went on the run. It's not a healthy family.

Each of the characters is introduced in a short chapter. It's a collection of vignettes early doors, written sparsely and without pretence. The pieces have the weight and craft of great short stories, each closing with a punch that had me feeling the encounter. Seeing a bigger picture. Admiring the survivors of those tough times.

From family, he moves on to describe incidents with friends, sport, acne, alcohol, school, books, violence and girls. They're wonderfully drawn pictures. Seriously powerful.

Right the way through, a spade's a spade. Which makes me wonder why it's so bloody poetic. Perhaps it's something to do with the juxtapositions of one idea onto another, the layers of meaning and less-than-obvious comparisons.

Take this one chapter. Chinaski's in English class. His teacher, a beautiful thing, sits out front with her dress rising. In the back row, one of his classmates is jerking himself off. The teacher tells the class about the European tradition of literature and talks about the new Americans who are going to blow them off the page. Hank seems to be screaming out that what has come before is literary masturbation, what is about to arrive is the new breed. And the new breed is Chinaski and the new breed is Bukowski and A-men to that.

What Bukowski seems to be doing is creating the legend of himself. Taking his life and embellishing wherever he can or needs to. Maybe sometimes this goes too far, but at those points I found it useful to remind myself that it's a work of fiction and not biography. Sure, he uses poetic licence, but he is entirely justified in that.

It would have been great to hear Hemingway and Bukowski comparing fishing stories, by the way. 'Mine was this big,' Hem might suggest while holding his arms as wide as he could. 'That was nothing. Mine was bigger than this,' Hank might reply, dropping his trousers and admiring himself.

The story is fascinating. Brilliantly told. Refreshing and honest and dishonest and very well worth while picking up.

Read and weep.
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on 10 July 1999
Move over, Holden Caulfied. In Henry Chinaski, Charles Bukowski has given American Literature what to my mind is one of the most devastatingly funny, sad, compassionate and wise portraits of adolescence we have. The book is packed with dozens of thumbnail vignettes that shine a tiny circle of light upon man's humanity--and lack thereof--to his fellow creatures. Think of Nurse Ackerman; the scene with the kitten trapped by the dog; the itchy ROTC uniform; Henry's beatings at the hands of his sadistic father; his friend with one goes on and on. To my mind, this book is Bukowski's masterpiece.
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