Charles Bukowski’s Ham on Rye is a semi-autobiographical rendering of his childhood years, told from a young Henry Chinaski’s point of view. We follow the young boy through all the hardships of Bukowski’s early years; the beatings from his father, the teasing from the other kids at school, the boils on his body and his love for alcohol. Ham On Rye also gives us a glimpse into the mind of the author, as he explains, through Henry, how he fell in love with writing. Being so closely related to his character, it can be easily said that Bukowski has created a ‘real’ character; one that can easily be related to. From cover to cover, Ham On Rye proves time and time again how Henry does not fit in anywhere, which is exactly how I felt when I started college last year.
Thursday morning on April 2nd, in 2015, my school had a pedological day and like countless times before, I had a gymnastics practice in the morning. I remember getting out of bed and pulling an old pair of sweatpants over my leotard and I remember being really excited. My sister and I (my coach’s daughter) were going to Montreal to shop for my prom dress right after practice. So I walked up the stairs, still a bit groggy from sleep, when my dad asked me to sit on the couch opposite him, that there was something I should know. That’s when I noticed my mom crying silently and I remember thinking about a million different things; my coach was diagnosed with cancer earlier that year and just thinking about it then, that this might be it, the tears started falling on their own. He told me how my gym’s committee had made a decision the night before, how it would be closing at the end of that year. Never. Not once in my entire life had that idea ever crossed my mind. I felt like someone had pulled the floor from right under my feet, and I was falling, falling… People spend their lives trying to find a place to belong, that’s what my gym was for me. Seventeen years spent side by side with the same people, laughing, falling, winning, partying, working and crying together; with teammates that were closer than sisters, with coaches that knew us better than we did. Ripped away from me just like that. The end of the year came and went and soon after, I was moving away. I packed my stuff to come live in Montreal to study at Dawson. Because it wasn’t enough for me to just lose my second home, I had to lose my real home as well. All alone in a city that was nothing like back home, there was no place for me. Where did I belong? Was I a gymnast, a coach? Or an ex-gymnast? Was I a student? For the first time in my life, I did not know where my place was.
Throughout his novel, Charles Bukowski does a great job of demonstrating how Henry has no place for himself anywhere. From the very moment moment the novel begins we see how Henry is not really a ‘part of his family’, “There was trouble at the house, much fighting between my mother and my father, and as a consequence, they kind of forgot about me” (Bukowski 66). This matched with his parents’ refusal for him to interact with people his own age, leaves Henry in a world full of adults, that he obviously has no place in. His lack of socialization as a child takes a toll on him when he starts school, “I didn’t have any friends at school, didn’t want any. I felt better being alone” (Bukowski 29).
He continues to distance himself as the years go by, until he does not even have to try to stay away anymore, there is a physical barrier between him and everyone else now, “About 8th grade, going into the 9th, I broke out with acne. Many of the guys had it but not like mine. Mine was really terrible. I was the worst case in town. I had pimples and boils all over my face, back, neck, and some on my chest.” (Bukowski 122). People no longer even tried to approach him, because if his glare didn’t send them running, the boils did. There is also another factor that plays in to why the kids at his school want no part of him, he is not rich like they are. His parents live in the delusion that they have money and therefore sent Henry to a school for rich kids, as if he didn’t have enough trouble fitting in as it were; “I felt singled out, as if I had been selected to be this way” (Bukowski 137). Henry realizes early on in the novel that while everyone else seemed to have a goal in mind, he doesn’t, “I had no interests. I had no interests in anything. I had no idea how I was going to escape. At least the 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. But there was no place to go” (Bukowski 174). This becomes even more painfully obvious for him when he watches his schoolmates dancing at prom, “They all danced beautifully and the music was loud and clear and good, powerful. Then I caught a glimpse of my reflection staring in at them – boils and scars on my face, my ragged shirt. I was like some jungle animal drawn to the light and looking in. Why had I come? I felt sick.” (Bukowski 193).
As the novel goes on, it becomes painfully clear that there is no place for Henry, no matter where he goes or who he is with. He tries going to college, but ends up realizing that, “[The other college students] knew what to do and they wouldn’t talk. I felt as if I was in grammar school again, being mutilated by the crowd who knew more than I did” (Bukowski 222). Even the idea of writing for a living as a journalist isn’t enough for Henry, just more work to do on his part. As for the people he hangs with now that we is an adult, they all have goals to reach and routines to build, which he wants no part of, “Everything else just kept picking and picking, hacking away. And nothing was interesting, nothing. The people were restrictive and careful, all alike. And I’ve got to live with these fuckers for the rest of my life, I thought.” (Bukowski 244). But none of this makes Henry upset,“I didn’t feel much different than I had always felt. I was neither elated nor dejected; it all seemed to be just a continuation” (Bukowski 247), it’s as if he has become indifferent. Nothing really matters to him, not money, not being jobless, not having a family, nothing.
I relate to Henry because I too have felt like there was no place in the world for me. As a kid, he didn’t fit in because he was only ever allowed to interact with adults. In high school he was a poor boy with boils in a rich kid’s school and as an adult he didn’t want a job or a family or anything, like everyone else did. When I got to college, I was a suburban girl surrounded by people from the city, who trained her entire childhood while others learned how to party and gossip. I went from being the girl with the highest average in her High School of 250 students, to being a number out of thousands. But the way we dealt with this feeling was very different. While I blamed myself for not being like everyone else, for not fitting in, Henry put the blame on others, saying that they were the ones who were living all wrong. While I started making friends and learning that I wasn’t the only one feeling like a fish out of water, Henry steeled himself off, fighting and glaring at everyone looking his way. Not fitting in can be dealt with in many different ways, our methods of coping are not the same, from one outcast to another.