Ham on Rye (1982) is not only a loosely constructed autobiographical novel of Bukowski’s distressingly poor childhood during the Depression, but it also qualifies as the novelist’s version of both a Bildungsroman and Künstlerroman. A Bildungsroman is a literary genre that usually deals with a young protagonist’s growth, development, and education into the sometimes harsh realities of life—a fall from innocence into experience, from a condition of blissful ignorance into the potential agony of self-consciousness. D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers (1913) is a classic example of this type of novel.
Ham on Rye can also be viewed as a Künstlerroman, or a novel that presents the growth and development of the young hero as an artist. James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916) and Thomas Mann’s Tonio Kröger (1903) are two of the better-known examples of this kind of apprenticeship novel. Even though Bukowski’s second novel, Factotum, recorded Henry Chinaski’s failure to keep even the most menial of jobs, and Women documented a similar inability to maintain consistent relationships with his numerous lovers, Ham on Rye goes back to his earliest childhood memories, predating the chronic personal failures of Chinaski’s middle years.
The structure of Ham on Rye resembles the episodic, loosely organized plot of his three earlier novels. It is divided into fifty-eight chapters, some as short as a page and a half. The title is a fairly obvious pun on Bukowski’s legendary reputation as a “ham”—that is, a dramatic self-promoter—and his equally infamous reputation as a drinker of heroic proportions. His drink of choice is whiskey or rye. It is also quite obvious that the “wry” or comic attitude that Bukowski/Chinaski projects toward a life steeped in unrelenting...
(The entire section is 789 words.)