By Anthony Sciola
Ham on Rye is a semi-autobiographical novel by Charles Bukowski. The novel follows the life of Henry Chinaski, who is Bukowski’s alter ego, during his early years. As we take a journey into Henry’s early years we also experience how tough it was to grow up during the time of the Great Depression. There is really only one aspect of Henry’s character I can relate to. Throughout most of the novel Henry uses violence against the group of individuals who alienated him, which causes him to portray this tough guy image. However, even though Henry portrays himself as tough, he struggles with confidence and often second guesses himself. The aspect of Henry’s character that I can relate to was being alienated by my fellow classmates during middle/high school due to the lack of talent when playing sports. During my high school experience, sports was a pretty big thing, if you were good at sports you were popular and if you weren’t good at sports you were alienated by everyone. Unfortunately for me I wasn’t very good so high school wasn’t always the best place to feel acceptance. I grew very quick and was unable to coordinate this big body at such a young age. At 14 years old, I was six feet tall; I was wearing size 11 shoes, massive hands, a six foot five inch wingspan, a huge head and a small torso. I was the Henry Chinaski of my high school, terrible in sports and had this “monstrous” appearance.
Like Henry, getting picked last was a routine “It was always the same. I was chosen next to last and David was chosen last” (32). I remember this moment like it was yesterday, I was in secondary three and the two senior gym classes of are middle school had to play a thanksgiving football game. To avoid making kids getting picked last the gym teacher made captains choose players two at a time, and yes you guessed it I was picked in the final two pair. You weren’t obliged to play this game but, I decided to put my name on the sign-up sheet because I knew the whole school would be watching and also, I had an advantage over everyone else, I was bigger than most the guys in my grade. I thought maybe this was my time to shine and make a name for myself. During the game I was so nervous, everyone was watching, even girls were interested at the time. They put me on offence but, never threw me the ball, I was a waste of space on the field, kids from the stand used to scream “big for nothing”, I didn’t care I knew my time was coming. The game was tied 21-21 and we had the ball on the final drive of the game, I told the quarter-back “I’m always open just throw me the ball I’ll catch it”, I knew I would catch it but, it was my coordination the problem. The quarterback screamed “HUT!” and I started running 5 yards then, cut to the right, feeling like Randy Moss in his good old days. The ball came over my shoulder and I made the catch, the crowd was cheering and I was making my way to the end zone but, then it happened I tripped over my big feet and while I landed the ball popped out of my hands. The safety on the other team picked up the loose ball and ran it all the way back for a touchdown. We lost the game and it was entirely my fault, everyone was in shock, no one said anything but they didn’t have to I knew I made the biggest mistake a middle school student could of made. In a figure of speech like Henry “I was moved to volleyball” (34), this was the start of my alienation and there was no way of getting out, I was classed.
Henry also experienced his first signs of alienation through sports. As a young boy we really don’t have many responsibilities and for most, sports become this everyday activity that young children use to separate themselves from the rest of the pact. When Henry was playing baseball in the first grade he realized that the other students have classed him as an outcast:
“You’re out! Screamed the boy whose turn it was to umpire. I got up, not believing it.
I said, YOU’RE OUT! The umpire screamed.”(33)
“Then I knew I was not accepted. David and I were not accepted. The others wanted me “out” because I was supposed to be out” (33). Henry wasn’t the greatest baseball player in his grade and therefore, the reason why the other students decided to discard him from the group. Being good at sports was a big fascination for young Henry and he would always imagine that one day he would become this great star. Henry would pitch and catch a football with his friend Red, to try and improve his game so that one day he could eventually play with his fellow classmates. Unfortunately, that time never came and Henry shows his frustration: “All a guy needed was a chance. Somebody was always controlling who got a chance and who didn’t” (62). I find this passage very powerful because I used to say this to myself when I was going through my very own case of alienation. The problem of being alienated by fellow classmates is brutal because no one can help you, you cannot force someone to like you. I was always looking for a chance to make my name in gym class; I was always looking to feel accepted but, that chance never came. This is where I relate to Henry the most because it was for the most part, your classmates who dictated who you were going to be during middle/high school. Henry was classed has an outcast and he remained an outcast for the rest of his life.
Henry’s father never made Henry play with the kids from the neighbourhood thus, making it another reason why Henry is alienated from his classmates. Playing with the neighbourhood kids is essential to building a bond for when you go to school, having a clique when entering middle/high school gives you this sense of security and confidence because you know when recess or lunch comes around you will always have a place to go and will never be alone. Unfortunately, Henry never had this opportunity to make friends so it contributed to his isolation. However, Henry got a chance one Saturday to play with a couple of guys from the neighbourhood, leaving Henry in shock “I didn’t know exactly why but Chuck, Eddie, Gene and Frank let me join them in some of their games” (66). Henry’s parents were always fighting at home so they kind of forgot about Henry. Henry saw this as an opportunity and played football with the children from the neighbourhood every Saturday. This however didn’t last too long as Henry’s father quickly tarnished his opportunity of acceptance and took away his only chance he ever got “But I’m playing football with the guys. Saturday is the only real chance I have” (67). Henry’s father didn’t care what Henry wanted and made his Saturday’s a living hell, Henry mowed the lawn all day starting early morning till late at night and if he left a hair, he would be strapped.
Henry’s early childhood development is the reason for his use of violence and eventual alcohol addiction has he got older. The fact that his fellow classmates and father removed him from doing what a young boy loves to do impacted him dearly. When Henry was in his teenage years and less dependent of his parents, he organizes a baseball game on Sunday with a couple of guys from the neighbourhood. Henry still has grief in his conscious about how he was treated: “all the games I missed mowing the that lawn, all those early school days of being chosen next-to-last were over. I had blossomed. I had something and I knew I had it and it felt good” (180). Henry in his later growing stages finally gets opportunities to express what he wanted to do his whole childhood; unfortunately for him it was too late. As children get older they start to prioritize things and sports becomes more of a hobby rather, than a way of life. Henry missed out on essential growing steps as a child and it led to serious problems later on in his life. He grew up with no ambitions or interests “I had no interests. I had no interest in anything. I had no idea how I was going to escape” (174). Henry also, accepts his faith of not amounting to anything:
“I could see the road ahead of me. I was poor and I was going to stay poor. But I
didn’t particularly want money. I didn’t know what I wanted. Yes, I did. I wanted to
hide out someplace where one didn’t have to do anything. The thought of being
something didn’t only appal me, it sickened me” (192).
From a young boy just waiting for his chance and looking for acceptance is now looking to be in solitude and no further contact with the rest of the world. I truly believe if Henry wasn’t alienated from his father and classmate’s, his life would have taken a turn for the better and all he really needed was a chance.
In conclusion, sometimes little actions can result in big consequences and for Henry that was the case. We need to consider the bigger picture, not only did Henry’s father and classmates deny him of what he always wanted to do, which was to play sports and be accepted just like everyone else, but they led him to be detached from society. It was hard for myself growing up, like Henry no one wanted to play with me because of my lack of talent and I was often pushed aside in school but, as I grew older and into my body I started to become really good at sports and only then, everyone started to accept me and wanted to play with me afterwards. I wouldn’t be where I am today if it wasn’t for participating in sports; it actually taught me a lot about hard work, discipline and teamwork which I can apply in future life experiences. Henry was denied this privilege, which forced him not only to be alienated in the playground but, also in society.
Work cited :
Bukowski, Charles. Ham on Rye. Vintage book, 1982.