By Neta Fudim
Charles Bukowski was born to be a black sheep of society: a man willing to utter the most irking vulgarities no matter how improper and eager to reinvent poetry and writing in his own way. Ham on Rye is a semi-autobiographical novel that paints the image of Bukowski’s somber upbringing and early adulthood. Just as the protagonist, Henry, gets closer to fitting in, life and circumstance only pull him further away from the norm. Though this makes him lonely and somewhat of a misanthrope at first sight, it also gives him the ability to have compassion for others. In this sense, I think most of us can relate to him. I, for example, have also felt like a lone wolf at times and almost never felt like I was a part of a specific community and that widened my circle of compassion.
One of the things I have most in common with Henry is our immigrant status. One moment from my life that I often reminisce about is my first day at school in Canada. I had to spend a year in a special class learning French. I remember coming into the class and getting hugged by a Spanish girl, then getting greeted by a teacher in French and being bombarded with questions in dozens of different languages from the other kids. I couldn’t understand a word anybody was saying and I immediately felt like sobbing. It’s the scariest feeling in the world not being able to communicate with anyone around you. I remember the kids in the normal classes wouldn’t want to be our friends and would try to stay as far away from us as possible. But once a few days passed, I became friends with a little Chinese boy and a Lithuanian girl and we all were misfits together. We might not have fit in but our friendship meant something more: an alliance of sorts. Ever since then, I’ve always tried to understand others no matter how different they seemed to be and that allowed me to meet friends from the four corners of the world, of varying cultures and religions.
Firstly, one of the ways in which Henry exhibits his sensitivity towards others is trough his views on animals. Unlike most people in the early twentieth century, he repeatedly describes animals as being sentient beings as opposed to unfeeling machines. I think it’s an indicator of his capability to relate to those who are dramatically different from himself. He recognizes his own pain when he watches helpless innocent beings having to face off against senseless cruelty. In one such moment, he watches a cat get cornered by a bulldog set free by the neighborhood kids: “I couldn’t watch the kill. I felt a great shame at leaving the cat like that. (…) That cat wasn’t only facing the bulldog it was facing Humanity” (90). It’s interesting how Henry sees protecting the weak as his moral obligation while the other boys exhibit what seems to be inherent cruelty. This concept of people being self-centered, egotistical and violent is also displayed in the capitalization of the word humanity. It makes humanity stand out as an evil authoritarian force in the world, whereas Henry sees himself as the opposition to that regime. Another instance where Henry sympathizes with the animal underdog is when he and Frank decide to baptize a stray dog:
“It’s too bad dogs can’t go to heaven”, said Frank.
(…) “We ought to baptize him.”
“Think we should?”
“He deserves a chance to go to heaven.” (72)
What’s most notable here is the idea that everyone deserves a chance for redemption. This contrasts with religion which is based around judgment and moral exclusivity for a select group of humans. Similar ideas are expressed further on in the novel when Henry has a personal encounter with “God”: “I wanted to get away. I wanted it to leave. It was powerful and black and threatening” (141)” God who is supposed to be the protector of man is more keen to a devil according to this description. Once again, the authority, whether it’s the Church, God or Humanity is the bad guy, while the most ill-treated group, the animals in this case, resonate a lot more with the main character.
Secondly, the protagonist also displays empathy when he encounters other people who’ve been excluded, bullied or who harbor unusual looks. Although he pretends to be a tough guy, there are moments where his sensitive side shines through. One example of this is when Henry somehow ends up in the final two for the R.O.T.C competition at his school. At this point in the novel, his acne completely isolated him from his peers and he had little motivation for anything in life. Nonetheless, he still worried about disappointing his instructor: “I was tired and bored. And covered in boils. (…) But I couldn’t make an obvious error. Corporal Monty would be hurt” (175). It is clear that no matter how miserable Henry becomes, a part of him is always concerned about someone else’s feelings. Though he seems to be pessimistic and hateful towards people, deep down he rarely expresses passionate dislike for anyone. He very rarely excluded anyone even when it came to Abe Mortenson who was a source of disgust and annoyance for him: “Abe Mortenson was bad enough but he was just a fool. You can forgive a fool because he only runs in one direction and doesn’t deceive anybody” (160). In fact, despite sometimes being jealous of Abe’s success in school, Henry also mentioned feeling bad for the boy who was controlled by his strict upbringing and lack of independent thought.
Finally, there is one group of people who Henry seems to dehumanize completely: women. Despite being soft-hearted when it comes to other “oppressed” groups, when it comes to women he has a very misogynistic attitude. At one point, Henry spies on Mrs. Anderson every day to look up her skirt and masturbate: “She was about 23 and had marvelously shaped legs. I could see almost all the way up her dress” (114). On multiple occasions like this, the protagonist objectifies women and describes them as being nothing more than a collection of body parts that turn him. This contrasts to the way he acts with all the other humans and animals he interacts with. Even when he likes a woman, like Mrs Ackerman for instance, he still points out that they are an exception to the rule. When he is being treated in the hospital for his acne he says that “I had seen many other women with better figures, but there was something warm about her. She wasn’t constantly thinking about being a woman” (136). This perfectly describes the hypocrisy of the main character that almost exclusively judges women by their physical attributes and then blames them for being too concerned with their looks. This is probably due to a combination of his upbringing and his rejection by girls throughout his adolescence. At the time when Henry was jobless, he would sit at the library hoping to attract girls: “(…) hoping some girl would pick me up. I knew I was ugly but I thought if I looked intelligent enough I might have some chance” (219). This is why he is so bitter towards women. He thinks they’re shallow, judgmental and intimidating, not recognizing those very same qualities within himself.
In conclusion, though I do relate to Henry’s compassion for the literal underdog as well as the human outcasts, he isn’t perfect. His attitude towards women isn’t something I can necessarily connect with, but I do understand why he acts that way. That being said, I think any character that breaks the norm, curses, thinks and says things that are seen as outrageous is appealing to many people. In our society, where everything needs to be “politically correct”, this kind of book is especially refreshing despite the fact that the story is quite sad.