Relating to a tough man…

Ham on Rye, by Charles Bukowski, is a semi-autobiographic novel that reveals parts of his childhood on how he grew up as an outcast. A vulgar yet funny novel that shows Henry’s struggles to be a tough guy while discovering the pleasure of alcohol and writing. He tries to be indifferent about everything and never showing any attachment to anyone, yet his sensitive side is why I am attached to this character. I can easily relate to being cold and pretending I don’t care, but deep inside we do care about something. In a subtle way, Henry shows that he cares about people who are disadvantaged.

I empathy Henry in many ways as I read this book and there is a specific moment in my life has reminded me of him. I was 16 years old when it happened. I was graduating high school that year and my teacher nominated me to be rewarded with a scholarship. I was only allowed to invite two people to the event, so I chose to bring both my parents. I was really excited to bring them because I always wanted to make them proud especially my dad. He wasn’t home yet, but I started getting ready for the event. I was feeling quite nervous to go up on stage in front of everyone, but I was mostly happy. I felt like I was floating on a cloud. I had so much ahead of me. Time started to pass and eventually it was time to leave. My dad didn’t arrive, so my sister came instead. The room was filled with chatters of other students and their parents. You could feel the energy of the room. Everyone was rather happy, yet for me, I felt a knot in my throat and my eyes were stinging. I remained silent, not wanting to let my disappointment show. I simply smiled and kept the night going as if it didn’t bother me. Arriving home, my dad was there chatting with a neighbor as if everything was okay. All he said to me was that he couldn’t make it because of work. I brushed it off and told him it was okay, but evidently it bothered me. Till this day, I still keep it to myself.

Henry tends to act unbothered and distant about everything which fools us to think he doesn’t care about anything. However, he is actually very sensitive but refuses to let it show. For example, when he graduates from high school, he searches through the crowd for his parents:” I walked around, looking. My parents weren’t there. I made sure. I walked around and gave it a good look-see. It was just as well. A tough guy didn’t need that” (124).

It is obvious that Henry actually feels let down inside but he does not show that directly. By pretending it doesn’t bother him, it just shows how much he wishes that it didn’t. That way, he wouldn’t be hurting. The reason he acts cold is because showing emotion means you care. When people know you care, they have power over you which makes you vulnerable. Therefore, we hide our feelings from those who can hurt us. Yet, when it comes to animals, to injustice or people who are genuine, Henry shows some sensitivity.
Throughout the novel, Henry encounters many animals and they are always being mistreated in some way by humans. They are the only characters that Henry approaches in a kind and friendly way. For example, on his first day of work, he meets a stray dog and he offers it some food. When the dog walks off without having a bite, he says: “No wonder I had been depressed all my life. I wasn’t getting proper nourishment” (202). This shows that Henry reflects himself in these animals because they represent the outcasts that are always rejected by the people just as he was. When he uses the term “nourishment”, he is referring to being provided any care or love. The fact that the dog wasn’t shown any affection is what makes him uninterested and this relates to Henry as well. Regarding a similar scene where he shows humanity towards the disadvantaged is when he watches a group of boys play touch football and “King Kong” wasn’t playing fairly (269). Henry stepped up into the game and went to teach him a lesson by injuring him like what he did to other players. This is just a way of him showing how he cares about injustice and this is why I love Henry’s character because we share the same values. The fact that he has the courage to face a bully is impressive since Henry did not have the guts to do so before. For instance, when his classmates wanted a bulldog to kill a helpless cat, he felt terrible for not being able to do something about it (90). Yet, now Henry has become more self-assertive. He proves himself a lot through violence when he feels that he is being underestimated.  The reason he has become like this is because he knows something that others didn’t. He knew how to handle defeat, so he wasn’t afraid of failure anymore and uses it to his advantage. All his life, he felt as if he was always losing, therefore it’s as if he had nothing to lose when it came to defending others either. Being able to identify himself as the underdogs, he does not hesitate to defend them as well. In a way, he’s stepping up for himself as well.


On the other hand, there are many things that Henry does not care about and those are things that seem to be a constant routine in his life.  For instance, as he is getting kicked out from his house, he does not sense any emotional attachment to his family at all:” 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” (247).  Concerning his parents, Henry had always been looked down upon no matter what he did. In other words, the continuation meant that he felt as if the vicious cycle of always being degraded was part of his life. Every day of his life, his parents never treated him with love as a result he does not feel as they were his parents. The first day that he got his first beating, Henry says to himself: “(…) these people are not my parents, they must have adopted me and now they are unhappy with what I have become” (42). In this scene, Henry is expressing how he does not feel that his parents care for him as if he was a stranger in the family. He develops this indifference to their presence because he has grown used to feeling invisible around them. He feels a similar way about his work and school. It’s just two places where he is constantly doing the same things every day and where he still does not fit in.  For instance, after getting his first job, he says: “The first three or four days at Mears-Starbuck were identical. In fact, similarity was a very dependable thing at Mears-Starbuck. The caste system was an accepted fact. There wasn’t a single salesclerk who spoke to a stockclerk outside of a perfunctory word or two. And it affected me” (210). He rejects conformity which shows well his character as an outsider. There were these standards that made the salesclerk treat him as a lower social class for no particular reason. Work, school and family are all values of the society that Henry makes him an outcast. He was continuously rejected by these institution of society.

To conclude, I believe Henry’s sensitivity about particular things is what makes his character interesting. I believe that he’s a very good person with good intentions despite his violence. He simply has different ways of expressing how he cares but what’s important it’s that he does have strong emotions. They say people who tend to hide their feelings are usually those who care the most and I think this applies to Henry as well.



One thought on “Relating to a tough man…

  1. An interesting look into the conflicting sides on Henry’s character. I like the connection you make to your personal experience. It adds a lot to the essay. Good work.


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