Ham on Rye, by Charles Bukowski, is a semi-autobiography novel during Henry’s school years. Henry is a character who has been through a lot of struggles, his environment and his school are big factors of it. He also doesn’t know and respects himself, he desperately tries to be someone he isn’t and he has issues finding his true personality. Keeping in mind what are my morals and values which are completely different to Henry’s, Henry does, in fact, relate to me in a way. I have figured out that Henry lacks the desire for something. In other words, he doesn’t show any sign of drive. Henry is an asocial adolescent, he is not accepted by other people and everything that is happening to him causes him to be distant from everyone else, even his parents.
One period in my lifetime, I also did feel that I lacked having a desire for something, was in my first year in College. I was accepted in Health Science and I chose this program because I had the grades and most of my friends applied in the same program. I did not have any goals or motivations to keep on moving forward, I only followed the flow and I hopelessly believed that one day, I will end up having a reason for me to go to school and to follow a dream career. In my first semester, I wasn’t sociable and I didn’t talk much with anybody, I just went to school to attend to my classes and then, I quickly got home when I was done. I never had a thought about spending quality time with people, I was really detached from the world. I did have some high school friends in Dawson, but I barely saw them because of our schedules being different and our breaks weren’t always at the same time. One day, there was a guy in my chemistry class that I partnered with to complete a lab, he was a guy who talked quite a lot which irritated me. I am not that kind of guy who would be disrespectful either, but I kept the conversation as short as possible. This proves that I was an unsociable person and I did not want to be involved in social activities such as in the lab period with my partner.
The protagonist, Henry, is someone who is not really involved socially but he does go to school. The fact that he acts tough around people is also, a sign that he is not connected with the world, he feels rejected as a result, he desperately acts as someone he is not and his vulgar attitude is a manner of revolting against society. He is disconnected from the world, “… since some people had told me that I was ugly, I always preferred shade to the sun, darkness to light.” (99) He is completely different from the majority; he likes what others normally dislike. Henry understands where he stands in the society’s point of view because he is called ugly by people, therefore if he can’t fit in society, better not share similar ideals and become an outcast. Henry’s solution in being rejected is to act tough, he thinks by acting that way he can defy everyone. Since there is no one to support him, he is captive in a world where he is not accepted. It is rare for an individual to care for Henry such as Miss Ackerman, she had sympathy towards Henry (135) and Henry also adds, “She was the kindest person I had met in eight years.”(136) When Miss Ackerman have pity for Henry, he feels uncomfortable for the first time in a long time he has a feeling of being cared for. In that moment, he sees a faint light of hope that he can probably fit in the world. Miss Ackerman is one of the only characters he meets in the novel that cared for him including Becker. There was a time when Henry wrote, about a German aviator in World War 1, “He was an ugly man with scars on his face, but he was beautiful if you looked long enough—it was in the eyes, his style, his courage, his fierce aloneness.”(146) In this passage, the aviator being ugly with scars in his face is how the world perceives Henry and the man having style, courage and fierce are characteristics that Henry has but nobody can figure it out. Henry proves that the world can’t understand him and he is alone in a vast land. He also says: “Nobody seemed to understand him and nobody knew how he had become so skillful with the red Fokker and in his other strange ways.”(147) Henry is different from others, he has his ways and since it differs from the majority, he is not welcome. To sum all up, Henry is unsociable and he is also not connected with the world, he resembles me in a way in my first year in college.
Henry doesn’t have a passionate goal or desire for something, he just keeps going forward in life. However, if there is an obstacle such as an individual or a group of individuals trying to harm him in any way, he will be arrogant and will provoke them. For instance, Henry has an abusive father and he gets beaten up for pointless reasons. Thus, one time, Henry doesn’t cry during his father’s beating, in order for his father to gain any joy out of it. After he gets tired of hitting his son, Henry provokes him by saying: “Give me a couple more, if it makes you feel any better.”(121) Henry really understands what people want, since he has no idea what he truly wants for himself, he avoids giving a sense of accomplishment to another. Yet, he still is able to understand people, but he is really apathetic towards himself and others. Henry accepts that he can’t do anything to change his current fate and the only thing he can do is to keep living whilst bearing anything that the world throws at him like hatred, rejection… He only complains about what he lacks compared to others but assumes that he can’t do anything about it, “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.”(175) He realizes that people around him know what they actually want in life, on the other hand, Henry has no idea what he wants which makes him envy them while he is less valuable than any other person. So he thinks that fleeing is his last resort but there is nowhere for him to flee. Furthermore, Henry has difficulties finding a goal, but writing is mentioned several times in the novel, he wrote a story about an aviator, and his friend Becker, a friend whom Henry look up to, wants to be a writer. Despite Henry’s asocial personality, Becker is the only and first official friend Henry has in this novel. Henry is influenced by his friend that he unconsciously wants to be like,
“You the landlord?” I asked
“I need a room.”
“I’m a writer.”
“You don’t look like a writer.
“What do they look like?”(263)
In this scene, knowing that Henry is not actually a writer, he says that he is one, which is exactly what Becker wants to be. This is a direct link that proves that Becker has an impact on Henry and that he might influence him in having a kind of drive. So to conclude, in this novel, Henry doesn’t have a potential goal in mind, but with Becker entering his life, what he lacked might appear later in the next novels. Again, Henry is similar to me because he is still trying to find a goal, a drive for him to move forward in life.
Henry’s unsocial characteristic and his lack in having a goal relates to me in my first year of College. His development is also present, despite for him being unsociable near the end he gets more openly to Becker. Similarly, to my development, I started to become more sociable and I found a goal for me to chase after. Therefore, I would recommend this novel, because of the battle between the protagonist and a world where he is not accepted.
Bukowski, Charles. Ham on Rye. HarperCollins Publishers, 1982.