by Lucas Tremblay-Moll
Ham on Rye by Charles Bukowski is a semi-autobiographical novel based on character Henry Chinaski who is growing up in a world that seems to work against him and he is forced to adapt to his environment: walk in the path of the wicked or make his own path. Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. Henry just wants to live in a world of minimalism and simplicity, but can’t seem to avoid complexities. The major complexity being the innately corrupt human beings that surround his life. As Henry goes through his life, all the negativity and corruption sculpt who he eventually becomes. On the other hand, this makes Henry have a profound understanding about how life works and what one must do: self-hardening, compulsive lying and accepting pain without reasoning. Therefore, the reigning themes in the novel are the cruelty and harshness of human life, and how one must adapt to that for survival: “’Joe! Joe! Where are you, Joe!’ Joe wasn’t coming. It didn’t pay to trust another human being. Humans didn’t have it, whatever it took” (144). Henry is a very natural representation of human beings, with a severe want to be different from the world, without completely detaching himself from it. The way he grows up is just him trying to mold himself to the hell hole that he lives in. In saying this, the aspect of Henry that I found most relatable is his natural ability to root around whatever life throws at him as well as seeing the true state of human beings: relentless creatures with nothing but their selves in mind.
I was 14 and fully soaked in the immaturity of high school when this tragedy happened. It was an unfortunate evening because I had just shattered my knee in Karate class, which lead to immediate surgery. What makes it even more lovely was that the injury was done in the very first Karate class I had ever took in my life. I was sentenced to crutches for 5 months with a massive cast around half my leg. I was the walking representation of embarrassment and I was forced to return to school. I did not understand why this was done to me, but I had to continue living because, I guess, that is just how it is. It was a grim period in my life, the air was heavier and there was a significant lack of color and laughter. There was one thing I did know: there was absolutely no way I was to tell anybody the real story. The only option I had was to lie and tell people what they wanted to hear. I would receive worried attention from all the pretty girls and telling them the real situation would simply kill my reputation. “Lucas! Oh, my God, what happened?” I would sternly answer: “It was nothing, I broke my knee in Karate…” Leaving them to think whatever they will, a mysterious persona. Or sometimes I would get more creative and try to show my tough side: “It was the championship finals and my opponent was scared to bits. He decided to give me a cheap shot to the knee so we didn’t have to fight!” This impressed everyone at the same time it preserved my manliness. Unfortunately, this got old fast and lying to everyone just made me feel bad. When I told the truth, it was more satisfying, regardless if it was slightly embarrassing. In this situation, I was attempting to adapt to my current lifestyle, while keeping my emotions in mind. I did what I could and I paid attention to what really mattered to me at the time. Over time I realized that there was more to life than just lies, but people appreciated the false stories I told them more than the real situation. Similar to Chinaski, I did what I had to do to survive, given what I knew and what I thought was right. Which is why he is such a natural depiction of human beings. Most do not know more than what they have experienced so they will work around what they have. Doing this helps for maturity and development, but sometimes this is not such a positive thing because if someone grows in in an environment of constant ill rooted thought and negative forces, they will root around that regardless.
To expand on the idea of Chinaski’s clear understand of human life is when he was in 5th grade and the teacher presents his completely made up essay to the class: “So, that’s what they wanted: lies. Beautiful lies. That’s what they needed. People were fools” (84). In this time, he discovers writing which will lead to many truths about the life, but he also has a moment of unfortunate realization. People love bullshit and much of human life consists of it. At this point, Henry was not completely aware that life is inherently cruel, but after he creates this fictitious masterpiece that was practically pulled out of his ass and for the first time in his life, gets a brink of acknowledgment—it is clear how crooked the world is. Being able to land upon this type of thinking at such a young age is amazing, but adds to the sadness of the novel. People were, in fact, fools and the only time Henry gets any sort of recognition is when he blatantly lies. The novel and this aspect of Henry’s character reveals such staggering truths about life. It appears people are congratulated for utter dishonesty. Growing up in this type of condition almost leaves someone no choice, but to become stone cold and heartless. Moreover, after realizing how remorseless the world is Henry is forced to adapt to it or he will just be swept away by its blood-thirsty onslaught. It is sad, but he must mold around all this pessimism turning him into a product of the wicked world he lives in:
“Who was Col. Sussex? Just some guy who had to shit like the rest of us. Everybody had to conform, find a mold to fit into. Doctor, lawyer, soldier-it didn’t matter what it was. Once in the mold you had to push forward. Sussex was as helpless as the next man. Either you managed to do something or you starved in the streets” (177).
This falls perfectly into what aspect of Henry is so admirable and relatable: his rawness and being able to see what humans really are, just hopeless creatures trying to find their way. Of course, the only reason he can come to this conclusion is if he has gone through the path himself. At this point in the novel, one can say that he has given up on a lot of things that surround his life, and joins a military establishment. In there he discovers how much really does not care about basically anything, but realizes that he is not the only person that is like him. In fact, all people are like him – aimlessly attempting to root around the complexities of life.
After reading the novel, one might question why he turns out to be such a horrible human being? A human, who just indulges in all the corruption, alcoholism, and egotism of life, at its full capacities. To that I think a simple answer would be: what other options did he have? Henry did end up doing what he loved in the end and ended up being harshly honest with himself. The type of lifestyle that he had, the type that never stopped applying weight to his shoulders, gave for him to search for an escape mechanism. Alcohol was his solution it added colour to his life and made life somewhat supportable:
“I have found something that is going to help me, for a long long time to come. The park grass looked greener, the park benches looked better and the flowers were trying harder. Maybe that stuff wasn’t good for surgeons but anybody who wanted to be a surgeon, there was something wrong with them in the first place” (96).
Henry discovers this addictive substance at very young age, but it seemed to have his name written all over it. Some people deal with problems differently and it just so happened that Chinaski dealt with his through alcohol. It is sad that the one thing that he feels is going to help him will also kill him in the end, but this adds to the abrupt realism of his character. One really sees the extent at which his life is screwed up, when at such a young age is mocking those who wanted to be surgeons. They were simply trying too hard. While this sentence is dark, it is equally beautiful. Sometimes people just need to find the beauty in not caring at all. I think Chinaski found that little grey area of happiness in life.
Living in the disgusting world that Henry did, his reaction was, to say the least, natural. He did what he needed to survive, and in his case, it was through the use of alcohol and a harsh outlook on life. At a young age Chinaski is presented with arguably, too much of life. This leads to the understanding that even if the world around him was extremely corrupt, he still had to fit somewhere in between that mess. Doing this also makes him learn more about who humans really are. Humans are all evil at nature, and life is just a battle of who can be more evil: “The problem was you had to keep choosing between one evil or another, and no matter what you chose, they sliced a little more off you, until the was nothing left” (174). Henry’s ability to come to these realistic conclusions and mold to the world he lives is relatable because I feel as though not only I, but everyone in their lives must do this to truly survive the purgatory that is life.