Charles Bukowski’s Ham on Rye tells the early life of a young man Henry Chinaski based around the life of the author himself. Beginning from early childhood Henry learns about the cruelty and superficiality of a society the he himself is excluded from. Henry as a character reminds me of myself and the way I view the human condition, even having particularly similar experiences that bread very nihilistic conclusions in life. The greatest thing I can relate to personally is that I was surrounded by a situation I could not escape nor control, resonating with his godforsaken isolation.
I remember sitting in the mental hospital. Mustard walls, plastic beds, smell of rubbing alcohol, the medicated zombies paddling through halls enveloped barely by blue gowns. I still had my clothes, thankfully. I think it had been about 6 hours I had just sat there. They accused me of being on drugs, psychedelics probably. They said that’s why I ran away.
Little did they know, I wish I was on some drugs. At least the following episode of containment would have been entertaining.
But no, I was sober. I was subject to patiently vegetating while I frowned upon life in general. I had run away. I experienced a melt down back at the home, guess the world just became a little too full so I split over. I barricaded the door and fled through the window and breathed the free air of spring. It only took about two hours for the police to located me to kill my fantasy, so it goes.
I looked at the hospital staff through a desolated lens. Plastic smiles, speaking empty words, they’re just words with not meaning. Taking their time, chatting, talking, while I was a task they chose to ignore.
Finally the “therapist” showed up. He asked me the text book questions. He drifted away while I answered, played with his pen and liked just thought about getting out of there. After the empty conversation, he concluded that I should “cheer up” and told me to “just write down that you are OK and that you won’t kill yourself.”
So I did.
I hated him in a way. I wanted him to help me. Tell whoever was controlling me that this is not where I belonged, that I was different, that I mattered and I was just angry at the cards that were dealt to me. I hated him because I had to be like him. I had to rely on myself and not let the sorrows bring me down. Even if that mean I had to do it alone.
Henry’s unique, bold character is one of the most appealing things about the novel. It is rare to see such a raw representation of life, particularly in the childhood of Bukowski himself. Henry’s personality is moulded by his environment and encounters with society around him. Unfortunately for him, his life is a constant, unforgiving struggle for respect. There are key factors to his development, mainly his father and the social construct of the world he inhabits.
Henry’s father resonates within Henry, whether he likes it or not. What really effected was the way that Henry was raises by his father, a strict authoritarian who regularly abused him over small, insignificant details. The reason why his father probably did this because he felt emasculated by the fact the cannot properly live up to his own standard of a strong male breadwinner. This profoundly effects Henry’s mental health and permanently scars his self-worth and pursuit of acceptance. For example, at the start of Henry’s acne problem, he attempts to reduce them with a salve, but his father forces him to keep it for an extended period of time. This resulted in severe burns on his body and after instinctively taking it off he is berated by his father. He exclaims, “The son-of-a-bitch doesn’t want to get well, (…) Why did I have to have a son like this?” (127). Additionally, the abuse effected Henry in a way where he seems detached from his emotions, separating himself from his painful reality. This can be analyzed from his first beating where he is absent from sentimental language. He speaks of the incident on the pure action, no feelings of sadness or remorse.
“There was only father and the razor strop and the bathroom and me. (…) Then the first blow of the strop hit me. The sound of the strop was flat and loud, the sound itself was almost as bad as the pain. (…) It landed again, I didn’t hate him. He was just unbelievable, I just wanted to get away from him. I couldn’t cry, I was too sick to cry, too confused” (70)
With a father like that, it’s no surprise that Chinaski rejected the normal social order, because he was aware that it was a lie. He had experienced for unfair the world was from an early age and constantly being told what be be and not tot be. The socia construct is rather destructive, to say the least. From a young age the kids are subjected to unrealistic social expectations and norms. The violents, politics, sexism and manipulated his brain as a child. He learnt to suppress his real character in favour of being a tough guy so others would respect him but might have been trying to convincing himself that he is someone that he is not.
Henry is an embodiment of the negative social and mental influences of the world and the effect it can have on a person. You can see this take a self-destructive tole on him towards the end of the novel. After he is finally kicked out of his parents home for his creative writing, Henry leads into a path of alcohol dependency.
“Without drink I would have long ago cut my goddamn throat.” (258)
Alcohol had become his only outlet for pain, so much so that he credits it for keeping him alive for this long. With this he becomes very violent, sneering at weakness. But Henry was not always like this, like when he attempted to save the white cat from it’s untimely death. Henry places himself as the feline, white and pur being faced with a constructed and cruel situation to other’s sick amusement.
“That cat wasn’t only facing the bulldog, it was facing Humanity” (90)
Although the protagonist’s development is gradual, the moment where Henry loses his faith in not only God, but for any eternal force to help him. This happens after the failed attempt to expunge the ‘demons’ from his body and his experience with sleep paralysis. He tries to confront God to no avail and believes he saw God during his episode, he attempts to find the answer in the little brown box,
“I asked the little brown box, ‘What did that mean? What did those eyes mean?'(…)
GOD HAS FORSAKEN YOU
(…) I didn’t believe it, I went back to bed and thought about. It was too simple, too direct.
This scene is a symbolic one, at this point Henry accepts that god is not there for him, that he is stuck with his reality, it wasn’t to punish him, it wasn’t so he could learn the ugly of the world. It just is.
To conclude, Henry would have not turned out so miserable if he had been born into a different atmosphere. For people like Henry, the profound effects of an upbringing like this leaves the victim to pick up the pieces of themselves along the rest pf their lives. But I believe that wisdom grows from pain. And whether it’s worth the torture to get there or the pure desolation, Henry can see though the superficiality of the world rather than being trapped in it.The world was arbitrary, the fact is that the world was not made for anyone, it seems you have to make yourself for the world.