Autobiography of a Loser

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A lot of people think Charles Bukowski’s Ham on Rye is his best novel.

I tend to read one novel at a time from a given author. I find that by the end of it I become properly saturated, and need to move on to something else for a while. Experience is at its richest in contrast, and that’s pretty much the way I read.

I’ve read a few of Bukowski’s novels, and splashed around in his oeuvre quite a bit. I really loved Post Office and Women. Ham on Rye was quite a different affair, and I think that initially I was disappointed because Ham on Rye presents the flip side of the qualities that make the Henry Chinaski that features in the other two a ‘great’ man.

Frank McCourt began Angela’s Ashes with the assertion that ‘the happy childhood is hardly worth your while.’ Is that’s true, Henry’s childhood was a trove of misery. He is picked on relentlessly by his pretentious, sociopathic father and finds life in working-class Los Angeles brutal and unforgiving. It gets worse, however; he hits adolescence and his body rebels. His acne is so bad he’s like a suppurating, oozing Elephant Man.

The book introduces all the Bukowski staples; his obsession with women, his readiness to engage in a brawl and the great love affair of his life; alcohol. There’s a great comment in the book when he goes to the park with one of his friends after getting drunk on wine stolen from his father; “We sat on a park bench and chewed the gum and I thought, ‘Well, now I have found something, I have found something which will help me, for a long long time to come’. The park grass looked greener, the park benches looked better and the flowers were trying harder.”

To begin with, I struggled with it. I find Bukowski to be the ultimate optimist. He’s considered by many to be a ‘low life’, but in his novels, he’s stored up riches to be proud of. His poems are studded with them. In many ways, I think it’s best to read Ham on Rye first, and then go straight into Post Office. Ham on Rye is what goes before, and everything he’s written after is the victory.

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