By Neta Fudim
Charles Bukowski was born to become this black sheep in society. A man willing to utter the most irking vulgarities no matter how improper, eager to reinvent poetry and writing as a reflection of his reality instead of the same old pretentiousness he detested. Ham on Rye is a semi-autobiographical novel that paints the image of Bukowski’s somber upbringing and early adulthood. Just as the protagonist gets closer to fitting in, life and circumstance only pull him further away from the norm. Though this makes him lonely and somewhat of a misanthrope at first sight, it also gives him the ability to have compassion for others. In this sense, I think I can relate to him even though my life hasn’t been nearly as traumatizing as his. I’ve also felt like a lone wolf at times and almost never felt like I was a part of a specific community.
One of the things I have most in common with Henry is our immigrant status. One moment from my life that I often reminisce about is my first day at school in Canada. I had to spend a year in a special class learning French. I remember coming into the class and getting hugged by a Spanish girl, then getting greeted by a teacher in French and being bombarded with questions in dozens of different languages from the other kids. I couldn’t understand a word anybody was saying and I immediately felt like sobbing. It’s the scariest feeling in the world not being able to communicate with anyone around you. I only knew one girl in that school who could speak Russian. She didn’t waste time telling me she refused to let anybody hear her speak in any other language than French thus revealing she wasn’t a “pure blooded” Canadian. At the time, a part of me wanted to be like her. She was pretty and popular and everybody seemed to like her but I couldn’t bring myself to pretend. So, I became friends with a little Chinese boy and a Lithuanian girl instead. We might not have fit in but our friendship meant something more: an alliance of sorts. I think once you get shunned a single time it becomes a compulsion to stick with those who do too.
Firstly, in Henry’s case, one of the ways in which he exhibits his sensitivity towards others is trough his views on animals. Unlike many people at that time and still to this day, he repeatedly describes animals as beings sentient beings with the ability to feel just as deeply as humans. Though this imagery may be a metaphor for the author’s opinions on society in general, I think it’s also an indicator of his capability to relate to those who are dramatically different from him. He recognizes his own pain when he watches helpless innocent beings having to face off against senseless cruelty. In one such moment, he watches a cat get cornered by a bulldog set free by the neighborhood kids: “I couldn’t watch the kill. I felt a great shame at leaving the cat like that. (…) That cat wasn’t only facing the bulldog it was facing Humanity” (90). It’s interesting how Henry sees protecting the weak as his moral responsibility while the other boys exhibit what seems to be inherent cruelty. This concept of people being self-centered, egotistical and violent is also displayed in the capitalization of the word humanity. It makes humans stand out as an evil authoritarian force in the world. Another instance where Henry sympathizes with the animal underdog is when he and Frank decide to baptize a stray dog:
“It’s too bad dogs can’t go to heaven”, said Frank.
(…) “We ought to baptize him.”
“Think we should?”
“He deserves a chance to go to heaven.” (72)
What’s most notable here is the idea that everyone, even dogs, deserves a chance for redemption. This contrasts with religion which is based around judgment and moral exclusivity for a select group of humans. Similar ideas are expressed further on in the novel when Henry has a personal encounter with “God”: “I wanted to get away. I wanted it to leave. It was powerful and black and threatening” (141)” God who is supposed to be the protector of man is more keen to a devil according to this description. The world is a dark place but I think for a long time in this book Henry tries to fight it.
Secondly, the main character also displays empathy when he encounters other people who’ve been excluded, bullied or who harbor unusual looks. Either way, he doesn’t gain enjoyment from inflicting pain unto others. Although he pretends to be a tough guy, there are moments where his sensitive side shines through. One example of this is when Henry somehow ends up in the final two for the R.O.T.C competition at his school. At this point, his acne completely isolated him from his peers and he had little motivation for anything. Nonetheless, he still worried about disappointing his instructor: “I was tired and bored. And covered in boils. (…) But I couldn’t make an obvious error. Corporal Monty would be hurt” (175). It is clear that no matter how miserable Henry becomes, a part of him is always concerned about someone else’s feelings. He also seems to be pessimistic and hateful towards people but deep down he rarely expresses passionate dislike for someone. The one person he really seems to hate in some parts of the book is his father. Even Abe Mortenson who annoyed and disgusted him didn’t evoke too many negative emotions in Henry: “Abe Mortenson was bad enough but he was just a fool. You can forgive a fool because he only runs in one direction and doesn’t deceive anybody” (160). In fact, despite sometimes being jealous of Abe’s success in school, Henry also mentioned feeling bad for the boy controlled by his strict upbringing and lack of independent thought.
Thirdly, there is one group of people who Henry seems to dehumanize completely: women. Despite being soft-hearted when it comes to other “oppressed” groups, when it comes to women he has a very misogynistic attitude. It’s honestly disturbing to read some of the vulgar things said or thought about women in this novel.