By Melvin Buquerente
The novel Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski is an in-depth look into the character Henry Chinaski life. We follow this character through his emotional roller coaster of a childhood; the dramatics of growing up and eventually become an adult. The traumatic experiences, the character’s thoughts and setting of the story make Ham on Rye a multi-dimensional novel. . An interesting fact about this novel is that it is a semi-biographical novel by the poet Charles Bukowski. With this information in mind, personal feelings of empathy emerge from the reader for the character as well as the author himself. There is something everyone can relate to in this story. What I was about to connect with the main character, Henry about was his family life, his childhood and his moments in High School. All of these aspects of his life made me reflect on my personal life.
Nevertheless, the main aspect of Henry’s character that resonated with me throughout the book is the constant oppression that he faces all throughout his life.
A major aspect of Henry’s character that I related to immediately, while reading was his feelings of embarrassment with his body. During Henry’s adolescence he develops acne vulgaris. In the book, according to the doctors, this case of acne vulgaris was “the worst they have ever encountered.” (131) As for Henry, he verbally expresses the shame of having these boils “I was ashamed of my boils. At Chelsey, you had the choice between gym and R.O.T.C. I took R.O.T.C. because then I didn’t have to wear a gym suit and nobody could see the boils on my body.” As for me, back in High School, I was the fattest kid in my year. I was super uncomfortable in my skin and Gym class did not help my self-confidence. I can recall one specific moment I was super ashamed of my body.
It was a Wednesday morning; Physical Education was my worst subject in High School. As a child, I was diagnosed with severe asthma. My mother being such a worry bug, refused that I be physically active unless it was made mandatory by the school. As a child, when I would play with the other children in our immense green backyard. However, as soon as my mother noticed that I was out of breathe, she would scream at me and tell me to stop running around or else I would suffer from an asthma attack. Time after time, I would try to convince her that I was fine. I threw fits of frustration, I would cry, I would ignore her screams for me to sit down, but nevertheless, she always came and pulled on my ear until I sat down to catch my breath. Not only was I embarrassed in front of my peers; I received the most painful punishment I knew as a child, ear-twisting. All of this to say, that while all the other boys my age became skinny and physically active, I remained the chubby boy who never got to practice all the sports I dreamed as a child.
Back to PE class, the teacher announced that today we would be participating in the Beep Test. As soon as I heard those two words, my heart began to beat like never before. I got so nervous that I began sweating profusely and was practically hyperventilating. Luckily, I used always sit in the back so only a handful of students saw me sweating. My teacher began the roll call to split us into two groups. As she called the names, we lined up one after the other to march behind the designated yellow line. All I could hear was my heart beating until Marvin came up behind me and taunted me asking: “Why are you already sweating? All we did was stand up and walk.” I was so ashamed of myself that I did not even turn around. From the residual heat coming from my face, I knew that I had turned bright red. The teacher blew her obnoxious whistle and we began the test. As per usual, my results were devastating: third one out, but the first guy to be eliminated.
From early on in the novel, we observe how Henry learns to be oppressed. When Henry and his family go around visiting their relatives, he states how he believes that his father strongly dislikes him due to this sentence: “Children should be seen and not heard.” (16) This is strong thing to say to a child because at that age, they learn from observation. In this situation, only figure that Henry can look up to is his father. He shows the example and dominates the opinion of the family. There may be some that argue that Henry could look up to his mother, however, if Henry’s mother was his role model, he would also learn to be oppressed anyways. For example, when the Chinaski family gets caught stealing oranges and are forced off the property, Henry’s father falls into a state of anger screaming “I’m coming back some day and get that bastard” (15) his wife then responds: “Daddy, we’ll have a nice dinner tonight. What would you like? (15). In this interaction, rather than standing up to her husband and trying to calm him down and that they should simply concede, Henry’s mom knows that she is forced to please him or else it would only aggravate the situation. Throughout the book, there are many other incidences where the mother is unable to stand up to her husband, which resonates with Henry.