Charles Bukowski’s novel, Ham on Rye follows the story of Henry Chinaski, the main character, growing up during the Great Depression. The novel is a semi-autobiography about Charles. Henry has abusive parents, doesn’t have many friends and is not the best looking man. With all this negativity in his life, Henry turns to out to become a violent man and turns to alcohol to make life seem better, the only thing that Henry finds joy in is writing. The thing about his novel that is so remarkable is that Henry is such a relatable character. Whether it comes from Henry acting tough and acting cool in front of his friends to him discovering what masturbation and sex is, he can relate to any kid trying to find themselves. But the most remarkable thing that occurs throughout the whole novel is that Henry is alone.
I remember there was this one time in high school where a teacher and I got into an argument about a quiz. It was a sunny Friday, the last period of the day and it was my least favourite class during all my five years a high school, chemistry. There was about 15 minutes left of class and the teacher announced we were going to have a pop quiz. I got out of my seat and started walking towards the door and then the teacher stopped me. She asked me where I was going and then she told me to go back to my seat. I replied in the nicest way possible, “With all due respect Miss, I find it stupid that you’re giving us a pop quiz on a Friday afternoon and it’s not like I’m going to pass it, so just give me a zero.” I started turning the knob of the door when she stopped my hand, “I don’t know if you think you’re the boss of this classroom, but in here, everyone follows my rules”. She took me out in the hallway and told me how I was disrespectful towards her in front of the class, started talking about me going to see the principal and how she was going to call my parents, all in all this took about 7 minutes. We returned back in class and she announced, “Because of this little dilemma we had over here, we don’t have enough time to do the quiz, and we won’t have enough time to do it next week so everyone gets a 5/5 except for you Giuseppe.” That didn’t bother me much, the highest mark I probably would of got is a 1/5, plus a took a bullet for some of my friends in that class, and that meant more to me than a stupid pop quiz in a class that I was already failing.
Throughout the novel, Henry continuously tries to seem like he toughest guy in the room. Although sometimes he does act upon what he says, Henry is not the tough guy that he thinks he is. The first thing to notice about Henry is that is being raised by an abusive father, a man who lose his job during the Great Depression and a man who takes out his anger on his son. Henry’s mother doesn’t help Henry when his father beats him senseless, after Henry took a beating for no real reason he asked his mother why she didn’t help and she replied with “the father […] is always right.” (39). His mom chooses his father’s side and Henry is left alone. Henry acts tough in plenty situations, “jammed his foot into the door” (275) when his neighbors didn’t want to turn the music down. Also becomes more conscious of how he isn’t really the tough guy he is, although he still does pick fights and starts conflict for no reason , he realizes that “[Henry] was a coward” (260). Henry also realizes that being the cool/tough guy doesn’t always pay off with his college teacher. “’I am assigning you a D for English 1.’ ‘A D, Mr. Hamilton?’ I asked, flashing my famous sneer. ‘Why not an F?’ ‘Because F at times, equates with fuck. And I don’t think you’re worth a fuck.” (235). As much as Henry wants to be a tough guy and play it cool, he leaves the class, all by himself. Henry let’s out his sensitive side more frequently, like where he felt bad for the cat going against the bulldog and humanity. (90) He can relate to the cat because the cat is by himself fighting against everyone.
There is also a reoccurring theme of Henry not being wanted by many people or how Henry makes friends but loses them quite quickly. Henry always tries to look like the guy who didn’t care what other people thought about him, he played it cool that we was an outcast; ”I didn’t have any friends at school, didn’t want any. I felt better being alone” (29). No kid wants to be by themselves. Another time where Henry isn’t accepted by the kids his age is when the kids in his neighborhood would play football without him. This is because of his father; “My father always ran the neighborhood kids away from our house. I was told not to play with them but I still walked down the street and watched them anyhow.” (60) He sits alone like the outcast he is. Henry does make a few quick friends at the beginning of the novel, one that stands out a lot is Red. Red was his friend with one arm, the friend that Henry backed up in a fight. But Red, like most of Henry’s friends just left Henry’s life; “Red’s family moved. One day they were gone. Just like that. Red never said anything in advance to me. […] he was a good guy.” (65) Just like that Henry loses a friend and is left by himself.
Henry also has a crazy sexual desire, every young man gets a sex drive a certain point but the way Henry approaches his is different. I know times have changed and porn wasn’t as accessible as it is now but here are different ways to masturbate rather than the ways he was doing it. The first time Henry saw a vagina was at the plane show; “There was a woman sitting in her skirt bunched back underneath her. She didn’t have any panties on, and looking between the planks you could see her cunt.” (76) And that day he didn’t know what was more exciting “the air race, the parachute jump that failed, or the cunt” (79). This is where Henry first discovers his sexual desire. The next event that follows is Henry’s English teacher, Miss Gredis. As Henry describes “She wore tight dresses and low V-necks, black heeled shoes and silk stockings. She was snake-like with long beautiful legs. […] Miss Gredis sat perched there with her legs crossed and her skirt pulled high. Never had we seen such ankles, such legs, such thighs. […] we got to gaze upon her for a full hour.” (102) Richard Waite would masturbate to Miss Gredis frequently. Any average teenager would have a crush on a beautiful teacher. This could be what leads Henry to do what he does with his front door neighbor. This is out of the blue, not every teenager would do this, and actually it is quite weird. Feeling alone, many men tend to please themselves. Henry also pleases himself by watching his neighbor Mrs. Pirozzi, he knows what he’s doing is wrong but he doesn’t really care; “If my parents come home from the movies and catch me here, I thought, then my life is over. But it’s worth it. It’s worth the risk.” (115). He needs to have his sexual desire satisfied on his own in the bushes.
Henry has a passion for writing, it is one thing that he is good at. He writes short stories when he is bored and has nothing else to do, like the story about the German Aviator in the Second World War Writing came easy to Henry, he developed a character that is a better version of himself, still ugly but a lot tougher and more recognised. To know how to write with such ease is a beautiful thing. Henry meets one friend hat he actually likes though is journalism class; “I only met one student at City College that I liked, Robert Becker. He wanted to be a writer.” (228). Becker is also a better version of Henry, he is better looking, he is a great writer as well, and Becker goes to the military, another thing a tough guy might do. When Becker goes to join the military, he leaves Henry by himself again. He only really connects to one character late in the novel because they both share a passion for writing.