Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski was a novel that I truly enjoyed. I read this book in two days. One of the reasons I enjoyed the novel so much was because I felt especially close to Henry. This novel revolves around Henry Chinaski and therefore the reader is able to understand Henry’s character, his motivations. I felt that Henry was a product of his environment. Not everyone that I have spoken to feels the same way.
Throughout the novel it becomes more and more evident that Henry is bitter. Who can blame him he grew up in the Great Depression, in the United States, as a German immigrant. His childhood was desperate. His father had standards that were impossible to live up to and so he was beat regularly. I do not consider myself to be a writer, nor was I beat as a child but the idea of impossibly high expectations and then become introverted are ideas I am extremely familiar with. Bukowski wrote the novel in a semiautobiographical manner. It is a hard task to be completely objective about one’s own life, try it with your own life. How would you depict yourself in a story about yourself if no one knew anything about you? Bukowski takes creative license to the story of his life but I believe that the general story is accurate.
The line between the truth and the embellishments in the novel is not clear. I don’t believe that the distinction is necessary. Bukowski is famous for having said that his pain is what made him into the writer he became, his story told through his perspective in his words is exactly what you want to hear. Bukowski weaves his story with raw scenes that leave nothing out, yet almost no adjectives are used. Quote Baseball. Bukowski describes his life and adjectives are used in few descriptions, the most common being good and nice. The novel is not filled with long words but rather connects to readers in a manner that expresses how literature can express so much more with simplicity.
I am not a violent person or a racist person. Everyone has prejudices, we do not admit them most of the time but they do exist. Henry’s character is an outlet into a scenario that would not be socially acceptable. He is a character that fulfills many male’s desires and visions. The society that we live in has many expectations for both men and women. Being a male I cannot comment on the expectations of female’s. Men are expected to be tough and not show emotion. “The smaller boy would attempt to fight back but it was useless. Soon his face was bloody, the blood running down into his shirt. The smaller boys took their beatings wordlessly, never begging, never asking mercy.” (28) Whether it be men or boys there was no use for weakness and those who showed any had it beaten out of them. This created a society where everyone became hard and distant. Men were then expected to be sensitive in relationships, but not too sensitive. Humans do have a need for companionship which results in most men being sensitive enough to have intimate relations. Henry does not he lives on his own he does not accept societies views and therefore does not want a wife. Quote Wife. He is more than happy to have intimate relations but he still finds even that difficult. This distance seems to spawn from his relationship with his emotionally distant father who raised a son to be tough, a hard worker and responsible. Henry does not pick up on the later attributes but is able to become tough. So tough that he scares his father.
“You should be grateful for your food, too. Do you know how much this meal cost?”
I shoved my plate away. “Shit! I can’t eat this stuff!”
I got up and walked to my bedroom.
“I’ve got a good mind to come back there and teach you what is what!”
I stopped “I’ll be waiting, old man.” (208)
Henry takes a stand against his father and his father has grown old and can no longer threaten Henry into submission. Henry in a way becomes like his father by rebelling against him. He harbors anger towards his father and it is reflected in the way he writes. Henry uses writing as an outlet for his emotional side yet he does so in a manner that does not make the emotion obvious.
The stories Henry writes about the Red Baron are interesting as Bukowski is writing about a tough guy call Henry and Henry is writing about a tough guy. The Red Baron stories are an outlet where the reader gets a personal view of Henry’s views of men and the world around him.
“I wrote pages and pages about the Baron’s dog fights, how he would knock down three or four planes, fly back, almost nothing left of his Fokker. He’d bounce down, leap out of the plane while it was still rolling and head for the bar where he’d grab a bottle and sit at a table alone, pouring shots and slamming them down. Nobody drank like the Baron. The others just stood at the bar and watched him.” (146)
Henry portrays what he believes a true man should be in his stories about the Red Baron and then tries to emulate that in his life. Unfortunately for Henry his ideas are skewed by the fact that Henry is surrounded by drunks and the cruel mentalities that were held by adults and kids during the depression time. Henry’s toughness leads him to write in a manner that is contrary to many of his time he is dark and desperate in his writing he does not flourish his words. “I’ve read your stuff. You’re too bitter and you hate everything.” (258) Becker the only character that Henry seems to admire yin the novel. In the context it is important to remember that Bukowski is writing about himself and is therefore commenting on his own writing through Becker. This makes the point that even Bukowski has a sense of darkness that he feels is overwhelming in his writing. Most writers of the time were more elaborate and pretentious in their writing, “heavy, labored, and pretentious. You either get a headache reading the stuff or you fall asleep.” (258) This again is Bukowski’s voice coming through during the novel with him commenting on the literature of the time that he has little respect for. Bukowski and Henry by extension strive to write in a real form that did not include “heavy, labored, and pretentious” (258) writing. Henry’s toughness comes from his childhood. His emotionally distant father caused him to grow up by himself. He had to learn things the hard way, and quickly because if he wasn’t quick he would have been left behind and made fun of. The other children also made him grow up tough as they singled out anyone who could not conform or at least defend themselves. Quote Knickers. Henry then take that toughness and morphs it into literature which is ironic because he would have been made fun of for writing stories in school.