Charles Bukowski was born in Andernach, Germany, on August 16, 1920, the only child of a German mother and an American soldier father. Because of social and economic difficulties, his parents brought him to the United States when he was three years old. They settled in Los Angeles, where he was raised and educated. His father spent most of his working life as a milkman until he lost that job during the Depression, a tragedy that turned an already difficult family life into an unbearable one. Bukowski’s father was obsessed with pushing his son into attaining the American Dream to such an extent that young Charles left home after he graduated from high school in 1939. Their relationship was an extremely difficult one, and his father regularly beat him.
Though Ham on Rye (1982) purports to be a novel, it unquestionably documents the early life of Bukowski—his childhood, adolescence, and early manhood. The main character-narrator, Henry Chinaski, is certainly Bukowski himself as he records in vivid detail the poverty and oppression of the Depression years and the damage done to the poor and dispossessed during that bleak period.
Bukowski’s two uncles both died young because of their excessive drinking, though his grandfather lived into old age in spite of an irresponsible life of drinking and womanizing. One of young Charles’s earliest memories is the contrast between his family’s disgust with his alcoholic grandfather and his own memory of him as a warm and generous presence. Bukowski identified with the outcasts early, the isolated and the alienated, and indeed became the writer whose major subject matter documented those empty, wasted lives.
His early family life is a litany of violent beatings from his father, who was unfaithful to his wife and beat her as well when she uncovered the marital infidelities. His grammar school days in the poorest sections of Los Angeles also consisted of endless battles with bigger and stronger boys who mercilessly taunted him because he was awkward, unattractive, and German. He spent much of his time alone, hiding out from the brutality of the daily routine of school.
While his teen years brought more self-assurance on the athletic field, they also brought violent bodily reactions in the form of acne and boils that became so inflamed that he had to be hospitalized. His face was permanently scarred, pitted and ravaged by the skin disease; in the shower room, his fellow athletes cruelly mocked his naked body covered with suppurating boils. During a time following surgery on his face and back, he first felt driven to create an alternate, imaginative world in which he could live outside the agony of reality. He realized that he could become a hero only in his imagination and that within that world nothing could hurt him. In short, he had found a refuge and power within himself that answered only to him, This realization propelled him eventually into the life of a writer.
Several other key incidents reinforced his decision to become a writer. One took place in the fourth grade, when the teacher was asking all the students what their fathers did for a...
(The entire section is 1292 words.)
The literary quality of Bukowski’s novels progressively improved, principally because each became more refined and sophisticated in terms of its form. The structure of Post Office consisted of a raw chronology of his years in the postal service, while Ham on Rye adhered to the pattern of a Künstlerroman. Hollywood has the advantage of being a full-fledged modernistic work because its form and content are virtually identical: It is a novel about writing a screenplay as it simultaneously records the difficulties that people encounter who drink too much. What saves Bukowski’s work from becoming a dreary record of the hopeless lives of a group of helpless alcoholics is his refreshing sense of...
(The entire section is 158 words.)