Ham On Rye, a semi-autobiographical novel by Charles Bukowski, revolves 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 up, he gets exposed to many things that make him vulnerable— painful beatings from his father, acne that accompanies puberty, and getting bullied at school. What’s remarkable about Henry’s character is his will to stay tough despite these stressors. He does not let anything or anyone get the best out of him, making him interesting to follow and personally relatable.
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. In secondary 5, 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 play with it—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’s, and demanded for my phone. As I look up and as it dawns 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. But I did not let his mistake get the best out of me, I brought my focus back to the exercises that we were working on and at the end of the class and took responsibility for what I did—I went to the substitute teacher and apologized for the inappropriate behavior and promised to not do it again.
The greatest stressor contributing to Henry’s feeling vulnerable and helpless is when his father would beat him up. The first of those was when he knocks over a kid in his physical education class and gets sent to the principal’s office. When his father finds out about it, he immediately sends 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” (39). During this first beating, Henry can’t believe his father would do this to him. He is shocked. But he doesn’t let his father get satisfied and get the best out of him: “I tried not to scream. I knew that if I did scream he might stop, but knowing this, and knowing his desire for me to scream, prevented me” (39). As the days go by, Henry’s father finds another element as a stage for him to perform more beatings to Henry: mowing the lawn. He orders Henry not to miss anything: “I DON’T WANT TO SEE ONE HAIR STICKING UP IN EITHER THE FRONT OR THE BACK LAWN! NOT ONE HAIR! IF THERE IS . . . !” (67-68). Henry would often miss a hair or two and get more beatings. Henry’s reaction to the last beating he describes in the novel is what drives me to be in awe of his character: “’Give me a couple more,’ I told him, ‘if it makes you feel any better’” (121). Sure, this is his father and he ought to respect his parents, but because his father does not pay him any respect either, it just seems right for Henry to respond in this way, making him appear to be tough and indestructible.
Just after the last beating that Henry will ever get from his father, he develops what almost everyone else has in their early teenage years such as acne. However, they’re not just the typical pimples that a teen gets one week and then they disappear and would come back again in a couple of weeks until they’re finally gone when the teen approaches young adulthood: “I was the worst case in town. I had pimples and boils all over my face, back, neck, and some on my chest” (122). It’s almost regretful because Henry is finally starting to get the attention he wants from other kids because of his great performance in sports, but this ugly circumstance is unfortunately blocking that. Moreover, it’s not only the minimum or no attention that he’s getting especially from girls, it’s also the younger and the older who make this worse for him. One time, when he’s walking to the hospital to get his boils checked, a young boy notices him and Henry hears him ask his mother, “Mommy, what’s wrong with that man’s face?” (127). This passage shows that not only is it disturbing for him, it also is for younger children who don’t even understand or know that these are pimples and that these are developed during puberty. When he finally gets to the hospital and has a doctor check his situation, the doctor could not help but tell their colleague, “I just finished examining a young girl with acne vulgaris. […] She cried. […] And now look at this fellow! If she could see him, she’d know that she really had nothing to complain about!” (131). This segment implies that not only younger children find Henry horrific, people who are older than him—professionals even—think equally defectively of him. Henry deals with them by ignoring and confronting through sarcasm. He ignores the young boy who made an indirect comment about his appearance, while he responds with sarcasm to the doctor, saying “Yes” when they ask him “Are you asleep, my boy?” (132). In this last bit, Henry is essentially telling the doctor, “Yes I’m awake, I can hear very well the unnecessary remarks you’ve been saying so shut up before I rub my boils on you!” These responses of Henry display his will to stay tough, not letting anyone’s criticism get the best of him.
We also see Henry’s bulletproof-type of character when he gets bullied in elementary and in college. One of his first encounters with bullies was in elementary, walking home with David. A group of boys, who are already ganging up on David, finds the both of them and beats David up. When they’re done with David, they go 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 screamed things at me but I didn’t hear what they said” (30). Here, Henry is terrified and doesn’t necessarily know what to do in order to help the unfortunate situation he’s in. We also see that during Henry’s elementary days, it’s not only his schoolmates who bully him, but also random strangers. Once, he goes to a public pool with his friend Red when he accidentally grabs a “fat woman’s ass” (64). The woman then hurls insults and false accusations at Henry: “You dirty little pervert! Trying for free grabs, are you? […] You wanna suck my titties? You got a dirty mind, huh? You wanna eat my shit? How about some of my shit, little prick?” (64). At once, Henry runs to Red and escapes. Henry’s experience with bullies doesn’t stop in elementary, it continues even in college. We see this when he asks his professor why he can’t give Henry an F instead of a D and the professor responds, “Because ‘F,’ at times, equates with ‘Fuck.” And I don’t think you’re worth a ‘Fuck’” (235). Henry resolves to leave the class, hearing and seeing everyone cheer and roar. In these passages, the evident pattern is that Henry deals with bullies by fleeing—he fled from the boys who circled him at school, the woman who threatened him at the pool and the teacher who mocked him in class. Although this might be seen as something cowardly, I view it as a strength. Instead of responding to the bullies, which will satisfy them, Henry resolves to escape and withhold from them the satisfaction of having someone react to their atrocity. To me, leaving situations such as these shows maturity and sends a powerful message to the bullies: “I’m worth more than this and I’m not letting your bullshit get to me.” This attitude shown in Henry’s character adds to his being admirable.
Everyone is subject to curves and hurdles. It’s the will to keep moving forward while fixing one’s gaze on the finish line that makes one’s marathon worthwhile. That’s what Henry does, making him attention-grabbing.