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. Henry is produced by the environment he is brought up in.
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 was brought up to believe that you could always do better then what you did. This was instilled in me by my father and it has affected the way I interact with people and how I work. As a teenager I have tried to separate myself from those ideas in order to form my own. More and more it seems that my ideas are not so different from those of my parents. Henry’s environment was harsher than most of his neighbors and “friends”. Not only was society harsh on him but so was his father. Henry was expected to do work around the house instead of play with his “friends”. Henry’s father has high expectation for him, “It’s time you did something around here. It’s time you got off your dead ass!” (67) Henry is not sleeping in the middle of the day when this occurs, he is playing football with his friends. Most parents would be more than happy to see their kids outside playing. Instead Henry is given military style instruction to mow the lawn.
The society Henry grows up in is riddled with liars and cheats. Henry learns firsthand how to lie from his father. Henry’s father pretends to go to a job every day because he does not want neighbors to see that he is jobless. On top of that the society he grew up in respected men like John Dillinger. Henry’s reaction to his death shows how society sees the world, “But the worst thing was Dillinger getting it. A lot of people admired Dillinger and it made everybody feel terrible.” (125) The society mourns for a gangster who robbed banks and broke the law. This is normal for these people who have next to nothing and need hope of any sort. Henry follows this by lying himself whether it be to teachers, friends or himself. Henry is also shown appreciation for being good at lying. When his teacher gives him a response to the president’s speech and Henry lies about listening to the speech he is rewarded and praised in front of the class. As Henry leaves the classroom he thinks to himself, “So, that’s what they wanted: lies. Beautiful lies. That’s what they needed. People were fools.” (84) How is Henry supposed to differentiate what is good lying and what is bad when no one has ever taught him the difference? 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 from his perspective in his words. Bukowski tells what might be the truth and we are okay with that. We love that. We buy that.
Humans pretend to be much more sophisticated and god natured then they are. We are all pretentious. 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. Men are expected to be tough and not show emotion. In the novel Henry witnessed many random fights. Larger boys would chose smaller boys to beat up. “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 becomes emotionally distant throughout the novel because this is manly. 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 emotional outlet yet he does so in a manly way. He creates very emotional stories where the emotion is hidden below the surface. Often times that emotion is anger. In the end Henry ends up being much like the man his father molded him to be.
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. This is his way of trying to escape the reality that he is tough on the outside yet still emotional deep inside. Henry’s toughness leads him to write in a manner that is contrary to many of his time. He does not flourish his words. In the novel Becker is the only other writer Henry meets. Not only is Henry jealous of Becker’s talent but he also is deeply affected by his commentary “I’ve read your stuff. You’re too bitter and you hate everything.” (258) Henry knows his writing is bitter just as Bukowski knows that his writing is bitter. Bukowski and Henry both feel that this is more “real”. In the context it is important to remember that Bukowski is writing about himself and is therefore commenting on his own writing through Becker. Bukowski is aware of the darkness in his writing just as he is aware of it in his own life. 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). Once again Bukowski’s voice comes through with him commenting on literature of the time that was contradictory to his philosophy of simplicity and pain. 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. Henry takes the cruelty and morphs it into literature. This is ironic because he would have been made fun of for writing stories in school.