I've only read tiny fragments of Bukowski in the past, which I thought were good, but not great. This is my first full book, by him and it is a brilliant autobiographical novel. It covers the author's childhood until in his early twenties Pearl Harbor happens. The book shows the brutalization and turn to alcoholism, and blind rebellion and misanthropy. It is brutal, honest and real.
Its interesting to compare it to Selby, who is I think an even greater writer, working with the same material at virtually the same time. The difference between Selby and Bukowski is that Selby is the kind of person who got beat up and Bukowski is the kind of person who did the beating, so they look at the same kinds of things from complementary perspectives, both are extraordinary in their honesty. In Selby's case his reaction to the realities of life at the bottom in 20th century is America is love an empathy for the downtrodden that comes out in a burst of uncontrolled and powerless empathy. In Bukowski's case the same realities lead to misanthropy (his misogyny is the corollary of this) and to disgust and inability to form proper attachments or healthy social interactions.
Bukowski is a a rare writer he is both brutalized and brutalizing, yet he has the sensitivity and the self-awareness to chronicle this in an unbelievably honest way and to encompass a yearning for attachment and the sensitive dysfunctional soul beneath. Other people have written about people like Henry Chinaski, the narrator, but Bukowski is that person and a talented writer and so far as I know that is unique.
Ham on Rye is a great book, but brutal.