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Ham on Rye Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

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 pain and misunderstanding saves him from the madness and suicide that have swallowed up less resilient characters. His sense of humor and his ability to view himself ironically help him objectify his sufferings and enable him to accept his condition and work within it rather than hopelessly resigning himself to its despair. His comic imagination, then, transforms the merely grotesque into a vividly compelling work of literature.

While the time frame of the novel covers the young Chinaski from his birth in 1920 to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the major focus is on his relationship with his father and other authority figures during his elementary and secondary school years. It is unquestionably his father’s sadistic cruelty toward him that becomes the novel’s emotional and psychological core. Henry Chinaski somehow creates an interior life that generates an alternate kind of benign violence that enables him to regulate and utilize the destructive energies of his father for his own artistic growth rather than his self-destruction. Though he finds temporary solace in heavy bouts of drinking and mindless barroom brawling, he also discovers, in his local public library, fellow sufferers such as D. H. Lawrence, Ernest Hemingway, and, for humor, James Thurber. A sympathetic teacher encourages his precocious ability to create “beautiful lies”—that is, fictions that fulfill his imagination’s yearning for some kind of satisfaction even though he seems buried in a life of poverty, violence, and hopelessness.

Again and again, Chinaski’s wry or sardonic sense of humor saves him from the uncertainty and chaos of the Depression years:The problem was you had to keep choosing between one evil and another, and no matter what you chose, they sliced a little bit more off you until there was nothing left. At the age of 25 most people were finished. A whole god-damned nation of assholes driving automobiles, eating, having babies, doing everything in the worst way possible, like voting for the presidential...

(The entire section is 928 words.)