Ham on Rye, one of Charles Bukowski’s many works, is the story of young Henry Chinaski, raised by traditional German parents in Los Angeles, California around the time of the Great Depression. This semi-autobiographical novel’s protagonist is twisted and inspiring all at the same time. From the eyes of a young child to the eyes of a young adult, we’re able to tag along on the journey of Henry’s violence-filled and unfair life, one that in the end turns out to be bittersweet. What’s so great about this novel for me is how relatable the character is. Without having lived through most of Henry’s experiences, I can still relate to him on a personal level. The intensity to which Henry feels as if he doesn’t belong anywhere and his need to go against what’s normal and expected of him is one thing I can relate to the most in the novel.
From the very start of the novel, where Henry is only a couple years old, we can see in him a sense of detachment from the norm and his need to do things his way. His actions lead him to get in trouble with many people including, bullies in school, his father, and even random strangers. His stubbornness reminds me very much of myself and how I am with a lot of things. No matter how hard everyone tries to tell me to do something a certain way I will refuse and want to do it my way. No matter how hard Henry’s parents forced him to feed himself with his right hand “[he] wanted to pick up the spoon with [his] left hand.” (9) Going against what’s “normal” and “right” is a trait that Henry and I have in common. His first day of kindergarten, is his first encounter with other kids who “seemed very strange, they laughed and talked and seemed happy. [he] didn’t like them.” (27) Here he’s expressing a feeling of dislike towards his classmates who are simply interacting with each other and having fun. Children at that age are naturally happy because they shouldn’t have experienced anything that would make them feel otherwise. It is evident through his reactions that Henry hasn’t had the most joyous and normal upbringing. We can tell that this is true through the way that Henry’s father speaks to him saying things like “Children should be seen and not heard” (17) every time young Henry tries to voice his opinion. Henry’s father is an important figure in his life for us as readers but it seems like he isn’t for Henry. This is certainly the cause for many of Henry’s outbursts and negative behaviour throughout the novel.
As of the 9th grade, just when things we’re starting to go up for Henry he’s labeled as an outcast and avoided because of his terrible acne. Just as his new appearance is starting to form his father forces him to transfer to Chelsea High, a school with mostly rich kids. Henry’s father has always had a complex of refusing to admit he’s poor therefore he sends his son to a school in a wealthier area to feel better about himself, without thinking of the impact it would have on his son. Henry is faced with humiliation for looking odd because of his acne and “since all the guys had cars Baldy and [him] were ashamed of [their] bikes. [they] left them home and walked to school and back…” (126) Even though his friend Baldy is in the same position as he is, knowing Henry’s character, he’s certainly going through this feeling of humiliation alone. Like many of us already know, high school is a difficult transition period where popularity becomes the goal and physical appearance is the priority. Speaking from personal experience, high school is a scary place with many mean people, but it takes just one person to make it all feel less intimidating. In this case, it doesn’t seem like Henry is appreciating Baldy for sticking by his side, assuming on multiple occasion that he doesn’t like him very much. It doesn’t get easier for Henry when even his own father feels like he’s a burden “Why did I have to have a son like this?” (127) he mentions after his son’s acne condition worsens. Finally, senior prom rolls around the corner and Henry can’t help but feel out of place. While watching everyone dancing and looking better than they usually do “[Henry] caught a glimpse of [his] reflection staring in at them- boils and scars on [his] face, [his] ragged shirt.” (193) Once again, his physical appearance is holding him back from joining the crowd and being like everyone else. He so desperately wants to dance with the unrecognizably pretty girls and enjoy his final moments of high school with his graduating class but instead he spends his night starring at them from a window and eventually decides to head back home. A special thing about Henry is that he claims to not care about what other people think of him and he deliberately refuses to live life the way you’re supposed to but he stills lets superficial things get in the way from doing what he truly wants to do thus intentionally labeling himself an outcast, an underdog, and a loner.
While in college, Henry does what’s expected of him and doesn’t ride with the herd. While the second world war is in full affect in Europe and American troops have been deployed to fight against the evil that is Hitler, the American population is very vocal, including Henry. Since America is fighting against Germany, it is inevitable that conversations about the war are discriminative against the enemy. This infuriates Henry for the obvious reason that he’s born in Germany and unquestionably feels attacked. Even if throughout the book we do not notice Henry giving any specific sign of attachment to his home country he still manifests a certain feeling of protection towards it. Another reason is the simple fact that Henry feels the need to go against the popular opinion and appear superior for doing so “Out of sheer alienation and a natural contrariness I decided to align myself against their point of view.” (236) Another way that he’s different is the fact that Americans are typically very patriotic and would do anything to protect their country but Henry on the other hand “had nothing to protect” (236) thus not particularly associating to the American lifestyle like everyone around him. I like Henry feel the same way about who I am. I’m Canadian born with immigrant parents. Henry in this case feels the need to defend Germany, just like I have a strong opinion about Greece, the country my parents were born in. In grade 11, my history teacher mentioned the Greek economic crisis and encouraged us to share our opinions. I’ll never forget the ignorance coming out of my classmates’ mouths when they slurred sentences like “Greeks are lazy”, etc. The need to stand up for the country I feel most associated with, even if it’s not the one I was born in, was so strong that I acted upon those emotions, thus going against popular opinion like Henry did.
By the end Henry turns into a violent drunk, who still feels as though he doesn’t belong. He’s in his own world, governed by his own thoughts and mindsets remaining unworried about what life has lined up for him. Henry is a lost soul seeking no refuge, only feeding off alcohol and his imagination. Much like many us college students who do not have a clue where we’re headed in life, Henry is our perfect imaginary hero.
Bukowski, Charles. Ham on Rye. HarperCollins, 2007.