Perhaps the most famous of Bukowski's novels and often considered the most autobiographical, Ham on Rye tells the story of Henry Chinaski, a thinly veiled alter-ego of the author and his adolescent years growing up in depression era Los Angeles.
The narrative starts with anti-hero Henry's early years, seemingly endless driving around in his father's car for short visits with relatives that his father seems to have nothing but sneering contempt for. The reader learns early on that Henry Chinaski Snr is abusive and mildly unhinged, beating his son and his wife for sometimes no reason at all. I know it shouldn't be, but the scene where he manically demands Wembly-arena-quality grass mowing skills from his son is quite comical in its absurdity.We follow Henry Jnr's progression through his school life, where, attracted by the socially acceptable violence he tries to get into sports, then girls and then into hardcore alcoholism and regular everyday violence during his unremarkable adulthood.
Henry never fits in amongst his peers, partly due to his sarcastic and morose attitude, his unusually large build and lack of emotion, and eventually because of his horrific acne. In reality his alienation is due to the fact that Henry is odd, in a myriad of subtle ways that nobody can really identify successfully. He never played with the neighbourhood kids, he doesn't react when he's targeted for beatings, he's never bothered by his creepy loner status and is perturbed when other weird kids latch onto him for short periods. There's an increasingly bizarre collection of oddballs that come his way, then disappear as suddenly. He builds, eventually, a reputation for himself as a tough guy, immune to affection and kindness, feared by all. His alienation is only intensified when his status obsessed father makes him go to a private high school full of rich kids is flashy sportscars, convinced that if he gives the appearance of wealth, people will consider him rich and successful. High school finds Henry back at the bottom of the pile, anonymous and stripped of his tough guy reputation.
In many ways it's a classic coming of age novel- adolescence is seen as ridiculous and adulthood pure insanity. Henry's father fakes a job for years and his mother barely breathes for fear of upsetting her husband. Adulthood looks intensely unappealing to Henry. There's plenty of truly cringeworthy episodes where, as you're reading, you hope that it isn't one of the autobiographical incidents...then the next one is that bit worse, then the next properly alarming, so you can deduce that at least one of them surely must have happened...and then that goes some way to understanding Bukowski as a person. There are events too where we come closer to understanding Henry as a character- we learn that despite his love of (and talent) for violence, he abhors cruelty to animals. Perhaps his one redeeming quality in a narrative where he comes across as somebody one would make effort to avoid.
Though he's a character the reader feels gradually diminishing sympathy for, he is definitely an authentic misanthrope. Less posturing than Holden Cauldfield, as phoney as the world he despises, less philosophical (and less obviously disturbed) than Meursault, less active than Johnny Strabler...he's invisible and utterly devoid of impact and it's thoroughly through choice. I suppose he's characterised mostly by lack- a lack of ambition, which infuriates his father, a lack of faith in himself or his country, a lack of application in anything that comes across his path. Though Henry is far from a likeable character, you have to admire his consistency and his truthfulness, and you can't deny he's compelling.
It's not exactly an enjoyable read, but the narrative style is absolutely gripping and the grim, relentless drudge of a life of isolation and despondency is gritty and dynamic, the prose fierce. It's such a compelling book with a memorable and intense anti-hero that trumps them all when it comes to authenticity. It's hard to tell if he's unhappy or not- it's hard to believe that he feels anything. Henry doesn't merely demand the reader's attention, he consumes it.