I finished Ham on Rye last night (or more accurately, early this morning), and while I enjoyed reading about the exploits of Charles Bukowski’s fictional alter ego Henry Chinaski, I don’t think I would want to live next to him. Being Henry’s neighbor could put you in peril. He’s loud, rude, gets drunk all the time and brawls with his pals and strangers who cross his path. Say the wrong thing to him and you’re likely to be on the receiving end of a right upper cut.
But in one scene toward the end of the book, we find Henry reflecting on his life as he drinks alone in his room in a Los Angeles rooming house. Bukowski paints the scene with humor, absurdity, loneliness and truth.
Our narrator Henry takes over from here:
It was a Saturday night in December. I was in my room and I drank much more than usual, lighting cigarette after cigarette, thinking of girls and the city and jobs, and of the years ahead … Then I heard the radio in the next room. The guy had it on too loud. It was a sickening love song.
“Hey buddy!” I hollered, “turn that thing down.”
There was no response.
I walked to the wall and pounded on it.
“I SAID, ‘TURN THAT F**KING THING DOWN!'”
The volume remained the same.
I walked outside to his door. I was in my shorts. I raised my leg and jammed my foot into the door. It burst open. There were two people on the cot, an old fat guy and an old fat woman. They were f**king. There was a small candle burning. The old guy was on top. He stopped and turned his head and looked. She looked up from underneath him. The place was very nicely fixed-up with curtains and a little rug.
“Oh, I’m sorry …”
I closed their door and went back to my place. I felt terrible. The poor had a right to f**k their way through their bad dreams. Sex and drink, and maybe love, was all they had.
Bukowski, Charles. Ham on Rye. Santa Barbara, California: Black Sparrow Press, 1982. 275. Print.
A short time later Henry walks back to the other room, knocks on the door and apologizes to the couple; he invites them over to his place for a drink. But the man, described by Bukowski as having a face “hung with great folds of sorrow,” refuses the offer and closes the door on Henry.
And so our Saturday night ends. Henry awakens the next day with what he calls, “one of my worst hangovers.”