By Vanessa Correia
For some individuals, self-expression is a struggle, only adequately expressing themselves behind the guise of pen and ink. Charles Bukowski’s novel Ham on Rye recounts the deplorable adolescence of Henry Chinaski. The novel is an obvious self-reflection, exploring how the tumultuous environment of the Great Depression shaped his personal outcomes in life. I found the novel enjoyable to read because of the simple yet thought-provoking prose. Chinaski’s hardships, although often exaggerated, are relatable because they describe basic human truths and emotions. Above all, I truly empathize with Chinaski’s sentiments of insecurity and understand how the cruelty of the world led to his callousness.
As a youngster, Henry was made do believe that he was an innate disappointment. Instead of acting as role-models and mentors, his parents bullied and belittled him, destroying every grain of his self-esteem. All of his actions were met with criticism and disgust. For example, Henry is scolded by his father at this dinner table for being ungrateful for his meal, when in reality, Henry is just moping over the beating he received the day prior for an incident at school. The destruction of his self-worth is apparent after dinner when he mentions,”when I went back to my bedroom I thought, these people are not my parents, they must have adopted me and now they are unhappy with what I have become” (42). This elementary school-age child already feels like a failure before he has even had the chance at becoming something. Although most of the abuse results from his father, his mother is equally as culpable, since she never steps in to prevent maltreatment. This is proven when Henry is being reprimanded for his “inadequate” yard work, and he reveals, “I could see my mother watching from behind a curtain” (67). The Chinaski duo of violence and passivity inevitably causes the maladjustment of their son, setting him up for later failure.
Physical insecurities are the first thing that comes to mind when one imagines traits that could be viewed as undesirable or ugly. From a young age, Chinaski’s greatest outward blemish, is well, quite literally, his blemishes: “Many of the guys had [acne] but not like mine. Mine was really terrible… I had pimples and boils all over my face, back, neck and some on my neck… I had to withdraw. I watched people from afar, it was a stage play” (122). I can testify that acne is not only embarrassing, but also socially debilitating. Having suffered from acne since the age of 13, I know first hand that every nasty red swelling is an enemy, inviting the attention of onlookers. It is extremely difficult to feel “normal” in social situations when there is a gross preoccupation with being judged by others. I, like Chinaski, had (and still have) the tendency to distance myself from others, almost as if complexion is a marker of value. Henry is a victim of the same fate; the Great Depression Era was cruel to everyone and his parents never let him socialize with other children. Above all this, he let the acne cripple his chances of bonding with other human beings: “I often stood in front of the mirror alone, wondering how ugly a person could get” (137). Because he was treated so poorly by his family and peers, I believe it led him to seek blame and fault within (and upon) himself, a most self-destructive behavior.
After Henry gets his boils drained of pus at the hospital, he leaves with his head wrapped in cotton gauze, giving him the opportunity to face the world through a mask. Although it seems counter-intuitive, it is evident that he feels a renewed freedom when he admits,“I was hidden. It was wonderful” (144). With the bandages covering his face, acne is no longer an obstacle in his way. It also gives him a mysterious air, as people are not sure about the true nature of his condition. This passage really struck me because I am intimately familiar with this exact feeling. When my skin was at its worst, I would leave the house with a hat to cover my acne-riddled forehead. I was afraid of being judged by strangers. Even in my own home I would leave on clay face masks for hours at a time because I felt disgusted and worried about repulsing others. I kept the same hairstyle for years (one that I despised) because I needed the hair to hang in front of my face. I never looked anyone in the eye during a conversation, a habit that still haunts me to this day. Masks are absolute freedom, Henry can also testify. Eventually the physical insecurity loses its choke-hold, but the emotional damage remains and seeks different masks to hide behind. Words and stories soon became the mask that let Bukowski and Chinaski face their largest insecurities.
Emotional insecurities are deep-seated and ever harder to overcome than physical ones. For example, Chinaski doesn’t know what to do with the energy inside him, as he has carried the idea that he is a failure since childhood. This is evident when he attends college and admits, “I had no interests…At least others had some taste for life. They seemed to understand something that I didn’t understand. Maybe I was lacking. It was possible. I often felt inferior. I just wanted to get away from them…I felt like sleeping for five years but they wouldn’t let me” (174-175). Inescapable feelings of inferiority lead him to feel like the world is in on a secret that will never grace his knowledge. This shows his descent into being a “bum”, as he doesn’t relate to others; he can’t even relate to himself. In his college years, Henry is tired of being confused, causing him to become even more reclusive. Writing becomes his only consolation, and he only truly realizes how important his craft is to him when his father disrespects his work. When his father throws all his belongings onto the front lawn, Henry disregards what would normally be considered “normal”necessities, such as clothing, and immediately goes after his manuscripts in a fit of anger, expressing that “that was the lowest of the blows” (247). His care for writing is above all else, his entire identity and insecurities embedded in his stories.
Another interest facet of Henry’s emotional insecurities is that he becomes utterly disgusted by conformity: “Everybody had to conform, find a mold to fit into. Doctor, lawyer, solider- it didn’t matter. Once in the mold you had to push forward” (176-177). Henry does not fit into any mold; he has never found a job or academic path in college to fulfill him, and thus it is impossible for him to conform. His aptitudes are simply not compatible with what was expected of young men in the twentieth century. Chinaski’s craft further distances him from societal expectations. At that time, “professional writer” was not an aspiration, rather, it was viewed as a symptom, a symptom of someone who could not contribute anything worthwhile, who did not propel his country, who was not good enough to choose a wiser path. Regardless, Henry is revolted by conventional lifestyles: “The life of the sane, average man was dull, worse than death. There seemed to be no possible alternative” (274). I found this passage humorous because he strives to be different (and prides himself for it), yet the cause of all his insecurities and blues is that he cannot seem to fit in. I think everyone can empathize with this struggle and the malaise it causes.
Even though we have such different personalities and have lived such different lives, I can relate to Henry’s pain and insecurities. It’s easy to be distracted and turned off by his rough exterior, however the human underneath deserves compassion and an open-mind. Every person, good or bad, is a culmination of experience, and has a backstory that is worth being heard. This novel taught me to be more sympathetic toward individuals I would usually take little interest in. If you’re up for an entertaining and insightful read, this book is the nugget you’ve been waiting for.
Bukowski, Charles. Ham on Rye. New York: HarperCollins, 2007. Print.