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Literature / Ham On Rye

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"The whole earth was nothing but mouths and assholes swallowing and shitting, and fucking."
Henry Chinaski

Probably Charles Bukowski's best known book. Ham on Rye depicts the childhood and adolescence of Henry Chinaski. Henry is a working-class German-American growing up in Los Angeles during the Great Depression. He starts off as an awkward, friendless, but overall endearing little boy. He's an average kid, bad at sports but tries, girls don't like him back, doesn't do tremendously well in school. Henry's father is incredibly abusive and aggressive, beating Henry for anything and everything he does, and his mother is unable to stand up to him. Trapped in a loveless house, Henry's anger and violent tendencies becomes more and more obvious. While all the boys his age have become fascinated by violence, Henry is constantly infuriated and aggressive and is becoming big enough that he can express his anger harshly.


Henry transfers to a wealthy private school. His father insists that they pretend they are very wealthy although they are far from it. His few friends are equally hideous. Henry develops horrible acne all over his body, and it becomes so severe that he has to go to a medical clinic to get them treated and drops out of high school. Henry eventually stands up to his father's abuse, leaves home, and continues to a local community college. Henry begins to enjoy writing, although he grades himself harshly, and attempts to find a job.


Ham on Rye contains examples of:

  • Abusive Parents: Henry's father is absolutely awful. His mother, who he barely has a relationship with, could also be considered emotionally abusive for her negligence.
  • The Alcoholic: Henry's first few drunken exploits are especially painful knowing that Bukowski's relationship with alcohol will become Henry's future.
  • Author Avatar: Henry for Bukowski, the Baron von Himmlen for Henry.
  • Butterface: Henry says that he has a strong chest and arms, but that the boils and scars on his back and face are awful
  • Friendless Background: Henry has very few friends and by the time he reaches high school, he insists he doesn't have friends and that he just knows the people he hangs out with.
  • Handicapped Badass: Red has a prosthetic arm, which he uses to beat up bullies.
  • Hospital Hottie: Henry is enchanted with the nurse who treats his boils, Miss Ackerman, if only because she is gentle and kind with him.
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  • Jerkass: Jimmy Hatcher, full steam. Most of the upperclass popular boys at Henry's private school are also awful. Of course Henry, who discusses how hideous his boils have made him, is also a bastard.
  • Pretty Boy: Harry Walden, who is delicate and adored by the girls in Henry's class. Henry describes him as an 18th century fop with his unusual, vibrant clothing and bullies him out of jealousy.


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