In his novel Ham on Rye, Charles Bukowski gives a semi-autobiographical recount of his life, beginning from his early childhood and gradually progressing to his adolescence and adulthood. Within the novel, Bukowski uses a fictional character, Henry Chinaski, to portray himself and convey to the reader all his inner thoughts and emotions as he grew up. While Henry’s life is certainly a less than pleasant experience, many of his problems are derived from the fact that he fails to control his emotions properly, causing his loneliness to simply increase. He fails to let people relate with him, nor does he try to relate with them, the result being his ever-increasing buildup of emotional baggage which he fails to channel properly.
As a little kid, I also remember being relatively friendless and moody as a kid. While I certainly felt superior than many other kids on multiple occasions, I never really felt the urgent need to display it in front of others, as Henry does, nor did I act with such blatant hostility as he frequently shows towards others. One occasion that remains vivid in my memory was at cram school back when I was in 5th grade. It was a November afternoon at around 6 p.m. and I remember being in the classroom, dozing off as the instructor droning on about math. Instead, I was focused on the traffic outside the window at which I was seated, the blaring noises that the car horns were making as well as the continuous rumbling of the cars trapped outside on the streets. As I closed my eyes and became increasingly light-headed, I faintly heard my name. It happened to be the instructor, who had called upon me to answer a question. The question itself was only an arithmetic question, hence I was capable of solving it with relative ease. However, as the teacher returned to teaching, I could hear a classmate whisper a not-so-flattering comment about me to the person seated next to them. Despite having thought up of my own rather crass comment that involved insulting his mother (which I also thought was quite rather witty), I refrained from doing so, as I knew it wouldn’t really benefit anyone if I did, even if I would have felt a sense of satisfaction from doing so.
Henry, on the other hand, lacks this type of self control. 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. However, 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. At the same time, Henry grows to become mature for his age and think differently from others. However, due to his broken lifestyle, these traits of his serve to cause him as many problems as they bring advantages. Henry deems everybody untrustworthy and grows an increasingly pessimistic view on life and as a result, he constantly acts insensitive towards others, for example when he tells Lila Jane “You didn’t have to help me” (Bukowski 46) despite her good intentions. Other times, he simply ignores other people’s problems, like when he “quickly left class and walked home alone, without David. [He] didn’t want to watch him getting beaten again by [their] classmates or by his mother” (33). Much of Henry’s loneliness can be explained by actions such as these ones, as his constant rebuffing of others makes others view him in a negative light. He is therefore left in a state of isolation, yet continues to yearn for companionship. This feeling of his is expressed subtly throughout the novel, such as when he “was told not to play with [the neighborhood kids] but [he] walked down the street and watched them anyhow” (60). Henry clearly wants to live a life like others his age, but forces in his life outside of his control prevent him from doing so. While Henry’s growing depression from this is understandable, what is not is the fact that he never bothers to act upon his urges to create some sort of change in his life.
As he grows to become a teenager, Henri’s issues persist. The difference now, however, is that rather than use anger as a mean of channeling his emotional distress, he has access to alcohol and smoking. His issues begin almost immediately, and upon being introduced to alcohol by Baldy, he states “I wasn’t worried about anything […] I have found something that is going to help me, for a long long time to come” (96). Despite his more laid back and carefree attitude, Henri still shows that he has never changed on a spiritual level. He first bullies his classmate Harry simply for his looks, yelling to him “I’ll kick your ass, you son-of-a-bitch, you don’t fool me” (108), showing his inability to really relate with others, but mere days later does not bother to care about his suicide, thinking to himself “He’d never sit there again. All those colorful clothes shot to hell” (108). He then returns to thinking about his teacher’s skirt, showing that he has failed to grow any level of sympathy for anyone, as his complete misunderstanding of the world around him doesn’t allow him the chance to do so. He maintains his anger streak as a method of trying to maintain superiority and to release his frustration at his own life, for example telling Jimmy “Maybe after a few beers I’ll beat the shit out of you”. Despite this, he still never discards his wish to fit in, as he still goes to the prom, but does not enter, stating “To look into her eyes or dance with [one of the girls] would be beyond me. […] As I watched them I said to myself, someday my dance will begin” (194). Henry demonstrates at this point that his problems are the result of something that runs deeper than he is willing to admit, clearly something that he himself is likely unaware of.
Eventually, when Henry becomes an adult, it is still obvious that he has not been able to find the cause behind all his struggles in life. At work, he has a fight with a customer, leading to the following exchange with his boss:
“You just don’t go around beating the shit out of our customers.”
“It was only one.”
“We have no way of knowing when you might start in on the others.”
“This guy baited me.”
“We don’t give a damn about that. That’s what happens. All we know is that you were out of line.”
“How about my check?”
“It’ll be mailed.”
“O.K., see you . . .”
“Wait, I’ll need your locker key.”
I got out my key chain which only had one other key on it, pulled off the locker key and handed it to Ferris.
Then I walked to the employees’ door, pulled it open. It was a heavy steel door which worked awkwardly. As it opened, letting in the daylight, I turned and gave Ferris a small wave. He didn’t respond. He just looked straight at me. Then the door closed on him. I liked him, somehow. (216)
The first thing that is easily noticed is that Henry has not lost his short temper or his poor judgement, a sign that he has yet to really confront his personal issues. The larger problem, however, is the fact that Henry is at ease with his own actions. By coming off in such a manner, Henry displays the fact that he has given up on really finding a way to solve his lifestyle, having come to accept the fact that nothing will ever change as it never has since his youth. When his English teacher calls his worthless, Henry simply “turned around, walked out, closed the door behind [him]” (235) without responding in his usual way and when his father throws out his manuscripts, he feel “neither elated nor dejected; it all seemed to be just a continuation” (247). While Henry may have come to accept that his position will never change, what he has not done is seek an answer as to why it will never change. Instead, he is indifferent about it, feeling that since he has had to deal with these problems all his life, he can continue to do so without issue. These actions of his continue to show that he lacks a fundamental understanding of his own emotions and therefore fails to express them properly, hiding his depression from others while continuing to cope with it by drinking alcohol to an excess. By the end of the novel, when Henry is at the arcade playing against a child, he questions himself by asking “I felt I had to win. It seemed very important. I didn’t know why it was important and I kept thinking, why do I think it’s so important?” (283). By now, the fact that Henry lacks the ability to understand the functioning of his own emotions is made painfully clear to the reader. His failure to understand himself, leading to his various emotional and mental issues, is not something he will ever have the chance to change due to his poor lifestyle and the negative environment he lives in. As a result it is clear his problems will never go away and he will forever be as flawed as he is.
In the end, Henry’s lack of an ability to understand his own emotions goes to an extreme level, making it increasingly difficult for a reader to fully relate with his situation. While it is easy to understand how he has developed into the person he is, it is difficult to understand his reasoning behind channeling his emotions as he does. Henry may be a unique character whose prose increases interest in the novel, but the complexity of his character and situation makes the novel ever more difficult to understand.