By Jerry Huang
In his novel Ham on Rye, Charles Bukowski gives a semi-autobiographical recount of his life, beginning from his early childhood and gradually progressing to his adolescence and adulthood. Within the novel, Bukowski uses a fictional character, Henry Chinaski, to portray himself and convey to the reader all his inner thoughts and emotions as he grew up. While Henry’s life is certainly a less than pleasant experience, many of his problems are derived from the fact that he fails to control his emotions properly, causing his loneliness to simply increase. He fails to let people relate with him, nor does he try to relate with them, the result being his ever-increasing buildup of emotional baggage which he fails to channel properly.
As a little kid, I also remember being relatively friendless and moody as a kid. While I certainly felt superior than many other kids on multiple occasions, I never really felt the urgent need to display it in front of others, as Henry does, nor did I act with such blatant hostility as he frequently shows towards others. One occasion that remains vivid in my memory was at cram school back when I was in 5th grade. It was a November afternoon at around 6 p.m. and I remember being in the classroom, dozing off as the instructor droning on about math. Instead, I was focused on the traffic outside the window at which I was seated, the blaring noises that the car horns were making as well as the continuous rumbling of the cars trapped outside on the streets. As I closed my eyes and became increasingly light-headed, I faintly heard my name. It happened to be the instructor, who had called upon me to answer a question. The question itself was a simple math problem, hence I answered it without much trouble, but as the teacher returned to teaching, I could hear a classmate whisper a not-so-flattering comment about me to the person seated next to them. Despite having thought up of my own rather crass comment that involved insulting his mother (which I also thought was quite rather witty), I refrained from doing so, as I knew it wouldn’t really benefit anyone if I did, even if I would have felt a sense of satisfaction from doing so.
Henry, on the other hand, lacks this type of self control. He starts off as an awkward, friendless, but overall endearing little boy. He is an average kid: bad at sports but tries, girls do not like him back, does not do tremendously well in school. However, Henry’s father is incredibly abusive and aggressive, beating Henry for anything and everything he does, and his mother is unable to stand up to him. Trapped in a loveless house, Henry’s anger and violent tendencies becomes more and more obvious. While all the boys his age have become fascinated by violence, Henry is constantly infuriated and aggressive and is becoming big enough that he can express his anger harshly. Because he deems everybody untrustworthy, Henry grows an increasingly pessimistic view on life. As a result, he constantly acts insensitive towards others, for example when he tells Lila Jane “You didn’t have to help me” (Bukowski 46). Other times, he simply ignores other people’s problems, like when he “quickly left class and walked home alone, without David. [He] didn’t want to watch him getting beaten again by [their] classmates or by his mother” (33). This leads Henry to jump into fights as often as he can, a common occurrence throughout his life. As a child, when Henry gets hit with a football by a kid named Billy, he “hit him behind his lieft ear and when he grabbed his ear [Henry] hit him in the stomach. […] [He] punched Billy in the mouth and he grabbed his mouth with both hands” (35). As a teen, Henry has the following exchange with his boss after getting baited into a fight:
“You just don’t go around beating the shit out of our customers.”
“It was only one.”
“We have no way of knowing when you might start in on the others.”
“This guy baited me.”
“We don’t give a damn about that. That’s what happens. All we know is that you were out of line.”
“How about my check?”
“It’ll be mailed.”
“O.K., see you . . .”
“Wait, I’ll need your locker key.”
I got out my key chain which only had one other key on it, pulled off the locker key and handed it to Ferris.
Then I walked to the employees’ door, pulled it open. It was a heavy steel door which worked awkwardly. As it opened, letting in the daylight, I turned and gave Ferris a small wave. He didn’t respond. He just looked straight at me. Then the door closed on him. I liked him, somehow. (216)
From comparing these two instances in his life, it becomes clear that the problem is not that Henry is goaded by others into causing problems, but rather that he is unwilling to compromise with other or overlook actions taken against him. Because of this, Henry immediately feels the urge to fight as it will provide him with a sense of superiority should he win, the only sense of satisfaction that he can ever find in his life. This mental trait is also shown in Henry’s disproportionate sense of retribution, something he develop due to the beatings he receives from his father. As an example, when he is angry at Baldy for inadvertently causing him problems at his community college, Henry “reached over and yanked his pants down. Underneath were green striped pajamas” (226). Within all these instances, Henry demonstrates an obvious lack of self-control, an issue that plagues him for the entirety of his life. Because of this, Henry is looked upon by others, further isolating him and causing his anger to build.
While Henry outwardly expresses his anger, he also shows the habit of repressing it and bottling it up, hiding it from others. Much of Henry’s loneliness can be explained by actions such as these ones, as his constant rebuffing of others makes others view him in a negative light and his inability to reveal his inner emptions leaves him without any friends. He is left in a state of isolation, yet continues to yearn for companionship. This feeling of his is expressed subtly throughout the novel, such as when he “was told not to play with [the neighborhood kids] but [he] walked down the street and watched them anyhow” (60). Henry clearly wants to live a life like others his age, but forces in his life outside of his control prevent him from doing so. Henry hides his anger towards the people in his life as well as the society in which he lives, feeling as though he does not need others to find self-worth and that he can enjoy himself even if he is alone. As he ages, Henry continues to repress his anger and depression, but begins to show it through a more sentimental aspect of his character. He pays attention to those who do not fit in to society as he relates to them and sympathizes with them, for example the people he sees in the hospital. As he leaves the hospital and the continues to hear the man’s yelling, Henri states, “Joe wasn’t coming. It didn’t pay to trust another human being. Humans didn’t have it, whatever it took” (144). Henry, while maintaining a clam demeanor, expresses his anger through his word as well as through how we can relate to the man. The man seeks someone who can help him, much like how Henry as a child desired someone to comfort and free him from his disastrous childhood. Henry, knowing that this man is going through what he had already experienced in the past, understands the emotions that the man is feeling and anger towards everything in his life is what allows him to sympathize with him. He also channels his anger though a false sense of hope, such as when he looks at the prom from the outside and says, “To look into her eyes or dance with [one of the girls] would be beyond me. […] As I watched them I said to myself, someday my dance will begin” (194). Henry shields himself through the false hope that maybe one day his life will finally change for the better, knowing that everything has progressed past the point where anything could really change. Despite knowing this, Henry does so because he wants to hide the anger and helplessness he feels within him, trying to appear as strong and stable of a person as he can, yet he remains a mess within.
As Henry ages, he gains an escape mechanism that plays a greater role in life than anything else: alcohol. This is foreshadowed in a way that can be noticed almost immediately by the reader, where upon being introduced to alcohol for the first time by Baldy, he states, “I wasn’t worried about anything […] I have found something that is going to help me, for a long long time to come” (96). However, although Henry uses alcohol as a means of getting rid of his anger, it at various instances causes him to become even more unpredictable and aggressive, such as when he tells Jimmy, “Maybe after a few beers I’ll beat the shit out of you” (187). Henry states, “Getting drunk was good. […] It took away the obvious and maybe if you could get away from the obvious often enough, you wouldn’t become obvious yourself” (189). Henry enjoys drinking so much because it allows him to hide from reality, finally providing him a shelter from the rest of the world. His growing attachment to alcohol comes from the fact that it is the first person/thing that has ever provided him with comfort when he was seeking it, and it is also something he knows will never abandon him. Rather than an actual means of escape, Henry views it as a companion, personifying alcohol throughout the novel to emphasize this fact.
As he ages, it becomes apparent that Henry is at ease with his own actions. By coming off in such a manner, Henry displays the fact that he has given up on really finding a way to solve his lifestyle, having come to accept the fact that nothing will ever change as it never has since his youth. In high school, he bullies his classmate Harry simply for his looks, yelling to him, “I’ll kick your ass, you son-of-a-bitch, you don’t fool me” (108). Through this, Henry shows his inability to really relate with others, and days later Henry does not bother to care about his suicide, thinking to himself “He’d never sit there again. All those colorful clothes shot to hell” (108). Henry’s growing apathy towards his surroundings shows a disconnection from the rest of the world as well as the sense that he has completely given up on life. In college, when his English teacher calls his worthless, Henry simply “turned around, walked out, closed the door behind [him]” (235) without responding in his usual way and when his father throws out his manuscripts, he feels “neither elated nor dejected; it all seemed to be just a continuation” (247). While Henry may have come to accept that his position will never change, what he has not done is seek an answer as to why it will never change. Instead, he is indifferent about it, feeling that since he has had to deal with these problems all his life, he can continue to do so without issue. These actions of his continue to show that he lacks a fundamental understanding of his own emotions and therefore fails to express them properly, hiding his depression from others while continuing to cope with it by drinking alcohol to an excess. By the end of the novel, when Henry is at the arcade playing against a child, he questions himself by asking, “I felt I had to win. It seemed very important. I didn’t know why it was important and I kept thinking, why do I think it’s so important?” (283). By now, the fact that Henry lacks the ability to understand the functioning of his own emotions is made painfully clear to the reader. His failure to understand himself, leading to his various emotional and mental issues, is not something he will ever have the chance to change due to his poor lifestyle and the negative environment he lives in. As a result, it is clear his problems will never go away and he will forever be as flawed as he is.
In the end, Henry’s lack of an ability to understand his own emotions goes to an extreme level, making it increasingly difficult for a reader to fully relate with his situation. While it is easy to understand how he has developed into the person he is, it is difficult to understand his reasoning behind channeling his emotions as he does. Henry may be a unique character whose prose increases interest in the novel, but the complexity of his character and situation makes the novel ever more difficult to understand.