Ham On Rye is a semi-autobiographical novel by Charles Bukowski revolving around Henry Chinaski, who is Bukowski’s alter-ego. It depicts the story of an innocent young boy growing into a violent tough man. As he goes through the natural path of growing old, he gets exposed to many things that make him vulnerable—acne that accompanies puberty, unfortunate beatings from his father and getting bullied at school. These are three elements out of many others are what makes this novel relatable to me. I can sympathize with Henry because like him, I also suffered from horrible acne, painful beatings from my father and bullies in elementary.
Similar to Henry, I get exposed to things that make me vulnerable, the kind of vulnerable incidents that magnet surrounding people’s eyes to you. When I was in my last year of high school, my Math teacher got sick so we had a substitute teacher giving us the pages to work on during this particular session. Because I thought the substitute teacher wouldn’t mind and the exercises seemed repetitive and useless for my future, I pulled out my phone to check out Facebook and Twitter—which contradicted school policy. Of course, the substitute teacher saw me with my phone out. He came to my seat, which was in the middle of everyone else, and demanded for my phone. As I looked up and as it dawned on me that this person in charge of us is up to get something as precious as my iPhone 5 from me, I felt my underarms sweat, my cheeks become hot and my eyes tear up. This is the first time a person in authority catches me do something I’m not supposed to do. It’s not even as grave as cheating, but I felt so vulnerable. Everyone knew me as the good kid, always listening to the teacher and never disobeying authority—righteous, almost. I felt so ashamed as I hand my phone to the substitute teacher.
Henry, when he acquired (probably not the most adequate word, to change) what almost everyone else had in their early teenage years such as acne, Henry describes his situation to be “the worst case in town” (122). He had pimple almost all over his body—on his “face, back, neck and […] chest” (122). It’s almost regretful because Henry finally starts to get the attention he wants from other kids because of his performance in sports, but this unfortunately is trying to block that. Just like how the other kids in my class thought I was someone they could envy because of how “good” of a student I was, Henry must have had that too. However, when the teacher caught me with my phone out during class time, it’s as if that melted away all the good things that everyone thought encompassed my character. In the same way, the boils and pimples took away Henry’s being good to other kids in his school.
Another example of Henry feeling vulnerable and helpless is when his father would beat him up. The first of those was when he knocked over a kid in his physical education class and got sent to the principal. When his mother saw the letter from the school that probably revealed what Henry had done, his mother cried and thought Henry has “disgraced” his parents (38). When his father came home, he immediately sent Henry to the bathroom where he beats his son with a razor strop:
“Then he laid on the strop. The first blow inflicted more shock than pain. The second hurt more. Each blow that followed increased the pain. At first I was aware of the walls, the toilet, the tub. Finally I couldn’t see anything” (39).
During this first beating, Henry could not believe his father would do this to him. But even if he tried to deny this by withholding his tears and himself from screaming, he still felt so helpless that he “began to sob, swallowing and choking on the salt slime that ran down [his] throat” (39).
Finally, Henry got bullied in his elementary days—even until he gets to high school and finds a job when he graduated. One of his first encounters with bullies was when he was walking home with David. A group of boys who were already ganging up on David found the both of them and beat up David. When they were done with David, they went for Henry:
“’Your turn now!’ They kept circling and as they did I kept running. […] I was terrified and calm at the same time. I didn’t understand their motive. They kept circling and I kept turning. It went on and on. They screamed things at me but I didn’t hear what they said” (30).
Again, we see Henry being terrified and not necessarily knowing what to do in order to help the unfortunate situation he was in. But only did he get bullied by classmates, he also somehow got bullied by his elementary principal, Mr. Knox, when he tackled a classmate at gym class:
“I stretched my hand out and he took it and began shaking it. […] His grip began to tighten. […] He crushed my bones and my fingers together. I could feel the bone of each finger cutting like a blade into the flesh of the finger next to it. Shots of red flashed before my eyes” (36).
In this scene, we see that not only did Henry experience physical bullying from an authority figure, he was also exposed to psychological bullying as we see later that he was forced by the principal to sort of admit that Mr. Knox is a tough guy and that no one should be messing with him. Here, Henry definitely felt vulnerable and helpless.
To conclude, Henry’s character in this novel is relatable to me because just like him, I am prone to vulnerability. However, it’s his will to stay tough, not letting anyone or anything get the best out of him, that makes him more interesting and also relatable in some ways.