In Charles Bukowski’s Ham on Rye, I had the honour to feel part of Henry Chinaski’s lonesome years of youth during the period of the Great Depression. Henry was raised in an abusive family who made sure that his self-esteem was below the lowest point you can think of. Everything that the popular boys in school had, Henri lacked. He was poor, sexually frustrated, bad at sports, and unfitting to the single mould society had to offer him. Throughout the novel Henry portrays himself as your typical loner with nothing else to it, kind of like a ham sandwich without any mustard. However, after looking a little deeper into Henry’s raw choice of words, I discovered a personality that related to moments of loneliness, self-loath, and hopelessness that I have experienced throughout my youth. Like Henry, I also wanted to be left in my own world at certain times. In the simplest terms, Henry wants to hide. His ways of hiding evolve along his journey in a way that corresponds to his development throughout the novel.
I too have had moments where my self-confidence dramatically dropped and I wanted to be left alone. It was the end of grade 6, and at that point it seemed that everybody was going through puberty except me. Puberty seemed like the most important change in your life at the time. It was all teachers and students would talk about. It was April when I came home from school one day to find two pimples on my forehead. Little did I know, the two following years of my life were spent battling against these ugly creatures on my face. I was struggling to find that confidence that I had entirely lost. They called it a disease, and I had never felt so ugly. I wondered, “What did I do to deserve this?”. I never wanted to leave home, I wanted to hide from everyone. It was the best of both worlds in the end. If I stayed home then nobody would have to look at my disgusting face and I would not have to feel bad about it. My mom would explain, “It is part of adolescence. Everybody goes through it”. She was right, but a couple of years later, my friends’ skin cleared and I was left with paths of gravel roads on my face. I’ll never forget the time a boy noticed how much acne I had. I replayed thoughts in my head of people thinking how gross and repulsive I probably looked. I tried to cover it with make-up but it simply made it worst. It was like a vicious cycle out to get me every time. Acne was like an itch that never went away in that everything I did involved whether my acne was apparent or not. How did I deal with this? Well, I hid. I avoided social gatherings with a lot of people, and I stopped myself from going out when my acne flared. Although Henry’s situation has not been resolved as mine has today, in the moment I always felt as though I was not pretty enough.
Henry uses violence to create a tough guy image of himself. Being trapped in his mind from his early childhood up until his adolescence, I have witnessed his character grow more aggressive. At the very beginning of the novel, I realized that Henry was lonely and isolated from the rest. From the surface, he was a conflicted boy with a tough exterior which could be seen from his sarcastic way of speaking. However, Henry did not respond to the “boys [circling]” him as they threatened to start a fight. In fact, he “didn’t understand their motive” (30). A tough character was always present within Henry but only later in life did he chose violence as a defence mechanism. After being the target for beatings for so long, Henry decided to take on the role of the bully. After Fastshoes refused Henry’s order to pick up the ashtray he knocked over as they were playing gambling games, Henry threatened to punch him. He did not take no for an answer and shouted, “just open your mouth one more time, say one word and you won’t be able to separate your head from your asshole!” (252). Henry’s dramatic response was followed by “a straight right into [Fastshoes’] mouth” (253). He wanted to be as tough as the boys pretended to be back at school. Henry builds a reputation for himself as the one whom people feared in response to being alienated by others. During this time period, being the brave bad-boy was a characteristic people noticed. Henry justifies his aggressive behaviour by saying, “I’m a man” (188). One thing for sure, I would not pick a fight with Henry if my life depended on it. He portrays himself as a vulgar, violent, and misogynistic individual in order to protect himself from the harm he has experienced in the past.
Henry turns to alcoholism so he can isolate himself from society. When Henry finally hits rock bottom, he discovers his saviour. When Henry has his first taste of it, he explains that “Never had [he] felt so good” (95). There was something about drinking that gave Henry life. His friends worry about him, but Henry assures them by explaining how “It’s the best way [he] know[s]. Without drink [Henry] would have long ago cut [his] god-damned throat” (259). Alcohol was definitely a self-destructive method of avoiding conflict, but to Henry, alcohol is everything. Although aggressive behaviour is often a result of Henry’s frequent intoxication, it is his way of hiding from society’s reality. Drinking allows Henry to live in his own world, and to create his own reality. It is the best he can do to stay as far away as possible from those who never really gave him a chance. Henri compares drinking to being “better than masturbating” (95) and to “magic” (95). Knowing how vulgar and sexually frustrated Henry is we can understand the great importance of alcohol in Henry’s life. Alcohol lets Henry reinvent himself or find a false reality in which he finds comfort.
One of Henry’s most beautiful characteristics is his ability to write. I noticed that writing is not discussed often in the novel, which can also demonstrate how secretive this skill is to those in his surroundings. Henry prefers to keep writing to himself, it is almost as if he hides that softer side of his personality from others. One day in class, Henry’s teacher congratulates him on the excellent essay he has written on President Hoover’s speech. Not only did “some of the prettiest girls in the class” begin to speak to him, but Henry has discovered a love. He loved to write. Henry was so surprised to have done so well on an essay he admitted to have lied about. He realizes, “So, that’s what they wanted: lies. Beautiful lies. That’s what they needed. People were fools. It was going to be easy for me” (84). One thing to notice is how Henry describes these lies as “beautiful” (84). Writing was his escape route, and a very beautiful one indeed. Writing was something that was going to be simple for Henry as his entire life was a lie, meaning that his stories are played in his own reality. Writing was something Henry kept to himself, and a skill that not many understood coming from the tough guy he seemed to be. Henry finds out his father had thrown away all of his belongings including “ten or twelve short stories” he had written. Henry was furious and shouts to his mom, “They were the one thing he had no right to touch” (247). I never got to know what exactly Henry wrote about. If I had to guess I would say it touched about the unfairness of society and the struggles he was going through. On the other hand, perhaps writing let Henry’s imagination flow free. This is where he entered his own world and hid from the society’s expectations.
To conclude, Henri accepts himself as society’s outcast but continues to find ways to hide from reality. He does not mind it. One thing Henry taught me is that hiding is not always a bad thing. Perhaps certain individuals are happier in their own world, and that is what I came to accept. Henry was in his own world, and this where he felt he had the most chance. Unfortunately, Henry has the need to portray himself as an emotionless individual. He resorts to drinking and writes best when he is drunk. In other words, he is better in his own reality. Ham on Rye is a worthwhile read, and Henry Chinaski is definitely a character I will never forget.
Bukowski, Charles. Ham on Rye. New York: HarperCollins, 1982. Print.