Charles Bukowski’s novel, Ham on Rye follows the story of Henry Chinaski, the main character, growing up during the Great Depression. The novel is a semi-autobiography about Charles. Henry has abusive parents, doesn’t have many friends and is not the best looking man, he also masturbates a lot. With all this negativity in his life, Henry turns to out to become a violent man and turns to alcohol to make life seem better, the only thing that Henry finds joy in is writing. The thing about his novel that is so remarkable is that Henry is such a relatable character. Whether it comes from Henry acting tough and acting cool in front of his friends to him discovering what masturbation, he can relate to any kid trying to find themselves.
I remember there was this one time in high school where a teacher and I got into an argument about a quiz. It was a sunny Friday, the last period of the day and it was my least favourite class during all my five years a high school, chemistry. There was about 15 minutes left of class and the teacher announced we were going to have a pop quiz. I got out of my seat and started walking towards the door and then the teacher stopped me. She asked me where I was going and then she told me to go back to my seat. I replied in the nicest way possible, “With all due respect Miss, I find it stupid that you’re giving us a pop quiz on a Friday afternoon and it’s not like I’m going to pass it, so just give me a zero.” I started turning the knob of the door when she stopped m hand, “I don’t know if you think you’re the boss of this classroom, but in here, everyone follows my rules”. She took me out in the hallway and told me how I was disrespectful towards her in front of the class, started talking about me going to see the principal and how she was going to call my parents, all in all this took about 7 minutes. We returned back in class and she announced, “Because of this little dilemma we had over here, we don’t have enough time to do the quiz, and we won’t have enough time to do it next week so everyone gets a 5/5 except for you Giuseppe.” That dint bother me much, the highest mark I probably would of got is a 1/5, plus a took a bullet for some of my friends in that class, and that meant more to me than a stupid pop quiz in a class that I was already failing.
Throughout the novel, Henry continuously tries to seem like he toughest guy in the room. Although sometimes he does act upon what he says, Henry is not the tough guy that he thinks he is. “You’re not worth a fuck”. The first thing to notice about Henry is that is being raised by an abusive father, a man who lose his job during the Great Depression and a man who takes out his anger on his son. Henry’s mother doesn’t help Henry when his father beats him senseless, after Henry took a beating for no real reason he asked his mother why she didn’t help and she replied with “the father […] is always right.” (39) Because of his parents, Henry becomes a tough guy. Henry acts tough in plenty situations, “jammed his foot into the door” (275) when his neighbors didn’t want to turn the music down. Also becomes more conscious of how he isn’t really the tough guy he is, although he still does pick fights and starts conflict for no reason , he realizes that “[Henry] was a coward” (260). Henry let’s out his sensitive side more frequently, like where he felt bad for the cat going against the bulldog and humanity. (90)
There is also a reoccurring theme of Henry not being wanted by many people or how Henry makes friends but loses them quite quickly. The kid with one arm, never got chosen to play sports, kids in his neighborhood. Henry always tries to look like the guy who didn’t care what other people thought about him, he played it cool that we was an outcast; ”I didn’t have any friends at school, didn’t want any. I felt better being alone” (29).
Henry also has a crazy sexual desire, every young man gets a sex drive a certain point but the way Henry approaches his is different. I know times have changed and porn wasn’t as accessible as it is now but here are different ways to masturbate rather than the ways he was doing it. The first time Henry saw a vagina was at the plane show; “There was a woman sitting in her skirt bunched back underneath her. She didn’t have any panties on, and looking between the planks you could see her cunt.” (76) And that day he didn’t know what was more exciting “the air race, the parachute jump that failed, or the cunt” (79). This is where Henry first discovers his sexual desire. The next event that follows is Henry’s English teacher, Miss Gredis. As henry describes “She wore tight dresses and low V-necks, black heeled shoes and silk stockings. She was snake-like with long beautiful legs. […] Miss Gredis sat perched there with her legs crossed and her skirt pulled high. Never had we seen such ankles, such legs, such thighs. […] we got to gaze upon her for a full hour.” (102) Richard Waite would masturbate to Miss Gredis frequently. This could be what leads Henry to do what he does with his front door neighbor. ***
Henry has a passion for writing, it is one thing that he is good at. He writes short stories when he is bored and has nothing else to do, like the story about the German Aviator in the Second World War Writing came easy to Henry, to know how to write with such ease is a beautiful thing. Henry meets one friend hat he actually likes though is journalism class; “I only met one student at City College that I liked, Robert Becker. He wanted to be a writer.” (228). He only connects to one character late in the novel because they both share a passion for writing.4