Ham on Rye, by Charles Bukowski, is an autobiographical novel that tells the story of a young man, son of immigrants from Germany, growing in Los Angeles during the Great Depression. It is a story of survival the father’s beatings, the aggressive environment, and disappointment against the Humanity. I find I can relate to Henry on his feelings of sadness and pity towards the vulnerability of people, and anger towards injustices done in the world. Moreover, I would like to have his assertiveness and ability to advocate for myself, and why not sometimes hide my emotions and go with the flow.
Being in the Social Service program I have to work on my personality, and on the way I see the things around me. When I had to choose my future career I had to take that on considerations that I would have to work on my triggers. However, I always knew that I want to work with people, and I want to feel helpful. I remember when I was a child, I always played with children that nobody wanted to play with, that were marginalized, because of their social status. I felt sorry for them, and I wanted so much to help them, and somehow protect from what society labeled them. I remember when one of my friend’s parents got divorced, and her father left I felt so sorry for her. I came home and asked my mother if she can call my father daddy, because she does not have one now. I was around 10, but I still remember how astonished I felt, and was wondering how a child can have just one parent. I guess I wanted her to be happy, and to continue to play with me. We would spend a lot of time together, and I even brought her some of my stuff and sometimes-even food when my mother would not be at home.
Accordingly, I relate with Henry the most in our compassion towards vulnerable people, and disappoints about the world around us. After watching the movie about author’s life, I assured that there is a big gap between who Henry is and what he wants other people believe he is. Like in the scene where Henry had to fight with the rich former classmates: “I felt as if I couldn’t get up. I had to get up. I was supposed to be a tough guy” (234). I think Henry felt the need to fight against the arrogance of those that feel superior just because they have a better financial situation. I guess Henry needed to proof wrong that poorer does not mean weaker.
Henry grew up in a period of unemployment, poverty and aggressiveness, a period of fighting for survival, he had no other choice that to be alike: “Most of us, I think, got little love from our families, and we didn’t ask for love or kindness from anybody” (91). I do believe that Henry would have had a different life if he had leaved in a different historical period. As one of teacher said, we are products of our environment, and the surroundings we grow in and our family of origin impacts us more that we realize. Henry had no choice than be as the rest of people in his life, he had to pretend tough to survive his father beatings, and the aggressiveness of people around him. Nevertheless, he found some strength in him to keep some positive feelings, and my favourite moments from the book are the once where Henry reveals this side of his character. There are not too many scenes of this kind, but they are significant in understanding Henry’s personality. Sometimes Henry takes actions, and would show the kindness of his heart, but sometimes he preferred to stay silent, and keep the feelings for himself. A funny moment in the book is when Henry, and his friend, decide to baptize the dog, so the dog could go to heaven:
“It’s too bad dogs can’t go to heaven,” said Frank
“Why can’t they?”
You gotta be baptized to go to heaven.”
“We ought to baptize him.”
“Think we should?”
“He deserves a chance to go to heaven.” (72)
I am quite sure that the only reason Henry accepted to baptize the dog is because Henry relates to him. The dog was alone on the street, probably beaten and hungry, and ignored by the whole society. Henry knows how it feels to be alone, “I felt better being alone” (29), and has no one to rely one. He tried to make the dog’s life better even if it would be after death. Everyone deserves a chance to be happy, and Henry wanted assure that the dog gets his part of happiness. Henry reveals the same feelings in the scenes when he shares his lunch with a dog from the streets: “Easy now! You need something to eat! FOOD!” (202). He took the moment to help the dog even with the risk to be late to the first day at his new job. This scene proves that Henry just could not pass indifferently near a wondering soul, and again I think that Henry sees a reflection of himself: “The dog was beaten, cowed, deserted, frightened, a victim of Homo sapiens” (201). However, the only difference is that Henry would not let anyone to approach him, and would not accept help from no one else. Asking and accepting help is going against Henry’s principles, tough people do not do that: “A tough guy didn’t need that” (124). Those labelled as week in the novel either got beaten by the fellows, or committed suicide. Characters in the novel cannot afford to show emotions in a world where everyone fights for their survival.
Nevertheless, there are situation where Henry would not take actions, and prefer to keep his feelings bottled inside, and not for “the public” eyes. The scene in the novel that portrays the bulldog against the cat, and how disappointed Henry felt about his helplessness: “The knowledge that I didn’t have the courage to do what was necessary made me feel terrible. I began to feel physically sick” (89). It is hard for him to witness the cruelty of the world he is surrounded, but I guess much harder is to comply with the reality, and move forward pretending that nothing happened. Henry was upset, and angry not only on him, but also on the Humanity, and on the people that witness injustice and prefer to be the silent observers: “Where were the grownups? Where were the authorities? ” (89). Henry could not accept that nobody does anything to prevent those situations, and people’s indifference hurt even more.
Lastly, Henry found a way to escape the reality by expressing his thoughts in writing, as the paper is not judgemental, and cannot attack and doubt, and putting those thought down brought some light in Henry’s life. Through writing his life got a meaning, was probably the only thing that brought him satisfaction, except the drinking. Drinking was Henry’s only way to cope with his environment and imagine that nothing happens: “Getting drunk was good. I decided that I would always like getting drunk. It took away the obvious and maybe if you could get away from the obvious often enough, you wouldn’t become obvious yourself” (189). This is Henry’s way to escape the reality, as seeing what happens around him is too much too handle. Drinking might not be the best way, but is the only thing that helped Henry deal with the real world.
Henry is a product of his environment, and more I pursue with my studies more I convince myself that our environment, our family of origin impacts us more than we want. The cruelty of the world we grow in hinders the good qualities, and we set free only the once we use to survive.