The Tragedy of Life

By Steven Colalillo

Ham on Rye is a detailed novel describing the author, Charles Bukowski’s lonely and difficult life growing up. The novel is about Henry Chinaski, a young boy who is put through a brutal childhood of abuse, injustice, and loneliness. He lives the life of an outcast and must grow up trying to overcome the struggles of his difficult adolescent life. I can contrast to Henry’s character because I have never really felt what it was like to be an outcast. I have always felt accepted in a group. When I was in transition between groups, if I felt left out at first, I would try my hardest to be accepted and gain some friendships. As I grew older, I’ve maintained friendship with those who have similar interests as me.

When I was small, I lived in Montreal-North and there weren’t many kids in my neighbourhood but the few that lived near me, I befriended and would play with whenever I could. When I turned seven, my parents decided to move to Saint-Leonard. The neighbourhood they chose, was filled with kids around my age. Although I was excited to meet them, I was worried if they would not accept me into their group. I remember the first time I saw them, I was looking out my window and they were all outside together on my neighbour’s steps. It was a sunny day, not a cloud in the sky and slightly breezy. I decided to go outside and introduce myself. When I got outside, I walked over to them and introduced myself. I remember the first thing they said was, “You play sports?” and I replied “I try to”. They then said, “Then let’s play some soccer and see what you got!” We played for a long time at the park right next to our house. When it was almost 6pm, some of the parents came out to say it’s time for supper and we decided that the last goal wins. We played even harder, trying to end the game and win the game for our team. My neighbour Anthony, who was on the opposing team, got the ball and kicked it right on our post. The ball came rolling to my feet and without thinking, I flicked the ball through an opponent’s legs and kicked it towards the net. We watched as the ball flew past the goalkeeper and we all celebrated the goal! After the game as we were walking towards our house, Anthony walked up next to me and said, “Hey nice game, you’re pretty good! See you around kid.” Ever since then, I’ve played soccer countless times with them at the same park. I continue to hang out with them and I’m happy to consider my neighbours my brothers. Unlike Henry Chinaski, I have always felt accepted and I believe it can be due to just having a positive attitude and an optimistic outlook on the world and others.

Everywhere Henry goes he is not accepted and plays the role of an outcast his whole life. He is a loner and tries to act tough but is really just venerable and emotional. He always feels left out and as if he does not belong anywhere. He plays the role of a loner at school. From when he attended grammar school, he had always been avoided because of his strange behaviour and rarely played football or baseball with the other boys. “I didn’t have any friends at school, I didn’t want any. I felt better being alone. I sat on a bench and watched the others play and they looked foolish to me” (29).  When he would participate, “it was always the same. I would be chosen next to last…” (32) because he did not have many strengths in the sport and “needed lots of practice” (32).  He was never accepted by those boys and they made it clear how they felt. One time while playing baseball, Henry ran to second base where he was tagged late and the umpire declared he was out. It was at that moment where Henry really realized that he “was not accepted” (33) and that the “others wanted me ‘out’ because I was supposed to be ‘out’” (33). From early stages of Henry’s childhood, we can see he has a pessimistic vision of the world. He does not feel as if anyone cares for him and he feels that he does not fit in anywhere. As Henry gets older, he looks forward to his adult life. Perhaps he believed that it would be a different world to him. However, his adulthood turned out to be just as cruel as his childhood. He states that “times are still hard” (201) and when he gets his job his manager is just as harsh as his teachers he had in the past several years. He tries to be tough and keep his vulnerable side from showing. To do this, he would try staying away from others to not feel an attachment and vulnerable to them: “it felt good to sit alone in a small space and smoke and drink. I had always been good company for myself” (275). After all these years of others treating him as a monster or feeling unwanted, the only way he found comfort or the acceptance he had envied others for having, was by drinking and smoking.

In Jr. High, Henry had a terrible case of acne. He claimed it to be “the worst case in town. [He] had pimples and boils all over [his] face, back, neck and some on [his] chest.” (122). This could not have come at a worse time. He was finally becoming slightly more accepted from others “as a tough guy and a leader” (122) but because of the boils he “had to withdraw” (122). He had always wanted to feel like a monster to others but that is only because he feels that if no one were to be close to him he would have no one to hurt him or cause him more pain in his dreadful life. On his way to his first day of work, he stops to feed a dog;

“I noticed a starving mongrel dog following me. The poor creature was terribly thin; I could see his ribs poking through his skin. Most of his fur had fallen off. What remained clung in dry, twisted patches. The dog was beaten, cowed, deserted, frightened, a victim of Homo sapiens. I stopped and knelt, put out my hand. He backed off” (201).

Henry feels a connection with this dog. The dog was unloved and unwanted just like he was. Henry too feels victimized by others but when he tries to shows compassion, the dog backs off from him. This inevitably let Henry come to the realization that if not even this disfigured dog would want his friendship, he must truly be an outcast.

To make things even worse, after Jr. high Henry’s dad forced him to go to a private school called Chelsea High. Most of the boys “had their own automobile, many of them new convertibles…” (125) and both the boys and girls were always “nicely dressed… they seemed very adult and poised and superior. And there I was in my homemade shirt, my ragged pair of pants, my rundown shoes, and I was covered in boils.” (126). Prior to Chelsea high Henry felt left out by the boys because he was never very good at sports and some said he was “crazy” (32). Now at Chelsea high, he is also isolated from the others because of his boils and because he is poor. The girls would surely stay away from him now that they see his economical wardrobe and horrific appearance. He cannot seem to catch a break anywhere. He claims that some girls at school are “truly beautiful” (122) and that “just to walk down the street during an afternoon with one, you know, just talking about everything and anything, would have made me feel very good” (122).  All he really wants is to just fit in and find someone to care for him because his parents are not filling that role.

His parents do not help him feel accepted. they do not give him the love that every child deserves and needs and this can be a reason why he feels like a loner and an outcast. There was always “much fighting between my mother and father” (66) and because of this they would not pay much attention to him.  His father is cruel and unjust. He receives countless beatings from his father and had even heard his mother getting beaten. Henry had never been able to have a real childhood. He was introduced to a hardened world encrusted by an even harder reality. His father also never wanted him to play with “the neighborhood kids” (60) but because his parents don’t pay much attention to him he plays with some of them. Once, when his neighbours needed a player he went to play but his father later came out very angered screaming at him. “Its time you did something around here. Its time you got off your dead ass!” but I’m playing football with the guys. Saturday is the only real chance I have.” “Are you talking back to me?” “No.” (67). If he would have been allowed to play with his neighbours, maybe he would have felt like less of an outcast and would have started to change his attitude more positively. However, his strict, unjust, and unloving parents make him feel like he does not even belong at home, the one place a child is supposed to feel safe and welcome.

Henry is forced to live the life of an outcast and loner. He is never accepted because of his attitude and physical appearance. After being put through so much, he has now changed his attitude and became more pessimistic of the world and resorted to alcoholism to numb his emotional pain. If I never became friends with my neighborhood friends, I evidently would not be the person I am today. I would have felt lonely and reclusive. If Henry’s parents were to just act more appropriately, maybe he would have been accepted by his neighbours and would have had more optimistic views of the world and others.




One thought on “The Tragedy of Life

  1. You make a lot of interesting connections that highlight many of the moments from the novel where Henry feels left out and alienated. You give us an interesting perspective on this novel, and specific way to look at it. This demonstrates a strong reading of the novel. Your personal experience is well written, with lots of imagery, and helps set your argument by contrasting with this event. All in all, a solid response to this novel. Good work.


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