Many would describe Henry’s character in Ham On Rye, by Charles Bukowski, as being vulgar and arrogant, although this is true I see a deeper meaning beyond the characters so-called “flaws”. Throughout this novel readers get to take a tour of an outcasts past and learn the effects life can have on an individual. This novel derives from a true place of pain, suffering and a sarcastic undertone to mask the depths of loneliness. The book tells the story of the authors chaotic past from the lack of parental love and never being able to find a place in a world made out of black and grey. As a reader I can relate to the character in many ways. The character carries so much anger, sadness and loneliness within himself. His constant outbursts and need to cling on to writing as a means of being able to feel human or like you exist, all these components are just a reflection of how I feel as an individual.
Similar to Henry’s life, mine has not been one of high success or happiness. I have dealt with never-ending sadness throughout my life, whether it be death of a loved one or abusive relationships. It is safe to say that I have experienced a lot more than anyone at my age should, just like Henry. There is a recent incident that occurred throughout this semester that makes me feel that I can relate to Henry’s sadness and this feeling that life is always out to get me. All my life I have been told that I am exactly like my father, although I carry the burden of inheriting his clinical depression and anxious tendencies I always tried to focus on the more positive aspects that I must have inherited from him. Recently, my sister and mother decided to tell me the truth about my father. You see, for seventeen years of my life I have battled with the universe and blamed it for taking my father away from me when I was only four years old. But once my mother got down on both her knees with tears in her eyes she told me something I never wished to hear. My heart was pounding on the outside of my chest, my anxiety caused my breathing to come to a slow halt. I could no longer hear and the whole room felt cartoonish almost as if there was no way it could possibly be real. Then the four words came spiralling out of her mouth and landed straight onto my shoulders. The weight was too much to bear, within a millisecond my heart broke. My chest turned to stone and my head felt as if there was a beehive inside that got shaken up and the bees were spiraling in chaos. I wanted to run out of the room and scream out loud, allow the beast buried inside to howl at the darkness of life once more. “Your father killed himself” was all I could hear. The universe is not to blame, my father was not strong enough to stay for us, but I am.
My story shows my relation to Henry because of the way I dealt with the news of how my father truly died and how life never lets up. I have been through so much pain and heartache like Henry and just when I thought things were turning up it all comes crashing down around me once more. I began to kick and scream, I was angry and lashing out on anyone around me because no one understood how this felt. I too wanted to be alone and I wanted no one near me. Suicide was on my mind often after the news much like Henry, but just like Henry I did not want to be like my father. My father was not very strong just and killed himself because he could not deal with life and the heartache it brought. Henry’s father beat him because he could not deal with life either, his father was weak.
This character carries a lot of baggage and often tries to come off as a strong tough individual when deep down he is terrified of being hurt and unloved. There are many aspects to Henry’s character that I can relate with however, Henry’s character is definitely an interesting one. An example of Henry’s damaged character is his experience with abuse and the way he describes it. He described a certain instance where his father is abusing him and how after his father leaves everything seems alright again. Henry says “He closed the bathroom door. The walls were beautiful, the bathtub was beautiful, the wash basin and the shower curtain were beautiful, even the toilet was beautiful. My father was gone.” (70). In this scene Henry seems to be describing the release he feels when his father is gone. He carries this feeling of relief, as soon as his abuser would leave the room or leave him alone as if everything that wasn’t his father was beautiful again. In another scene Henry says “…my eyes were strangely dry. I thought about killing him…I looked at him…the eyes were no longer fierce” (121). This line is a good example of how after so many beatings someone breaks and loses all love for that person. They break and begin to see the person for who they truly are and wanting nothing more than to hurt them and have them feel what they made you feel. This can also lead into Henry’s need to be alone and wanting to push everyone away. An example of this is when Henry’s friends come over to see how he was doing. Henry did not want any of them to come see him, not only for the way he looked but also because he did not want anyone near him. You can understand his need to be alone and secluded as his friends entered his house and he answered with death threats screaming “Get out of here before I kill you!” (138). This violent tendency is shown multiple times throughout the novel as way of getting rid of people. When Henry has his friends over Jimmy and Fastshoes he randomly throws a punch at Fasthoes and sends him flying down the stairwell for no reason other than to push them away. The same incident was repeated with Becker when he came over and began showing concern for Henry, Henry responded to this caring and kindness by throwing a punch behind his ear. This example is just a never-ending show of how Henry is too scared to let anyone in and a response to fear is anger leading him to push everyone away by resorting to violence. Henry is never truly alone though because he often resorts to depending on his alcohol to numb any pain and protect himself from others. He admits this to Becker by saying “ It is the best way I know how. Without drinking I would have long ago cut my goddamned throat” (259). Clearly there is a lot of heartache in Henry’s past and he only knows how to deal with it by numbing the pain with alcohol. It serves as his own shield and without it he either would be hurt by others or a danger to himself.
This novel is definitely one I would highly recommend to those who come from a dark past or know what it is like to live with true darkness inside of them. Many people have looked upon this novel and Bukowski’s other work as something so sarcastic and hilarious to read because of the darkness. However, I do not consider this novel to be one of humor. Of course there are witty remarks and some comical attributes. But at the end of the day this story is about an individual who dealt with child abuse his whole life while his mother watched. He was disconnected from everyone and had no shot at true love. When he thought he was close to something life always told him no, he was never given a fair shot. This individual drowned himself in alcoholic substances trying to ease the pain while everyone stood there criticizing his work while ignoring his battle cries for help. He was writing from a place of true pain and sorrow and all anyone cared about was his sales and his talent for writing. Considering my position in the social working field it pains me to watch everyone focus on the novels and not talk about where the pain came from and how we can help this poor human being. From a social work perspective it is quite easy to see the pain this man endures and accept his ways of coping with it. Mental illness is not something easy to live with especially in a society where it is taboo to talk about it, especially considering Henry’s past.
Finally, I highly recommend this novel because for those who feel sadness, anger, depression and pain you can relate to this character in many ways. For those who read this novel and see it as nothing more than a comical skit, then they have never truly experienced the dark sides of life. I should know because I have and I do not consider this novel to be hilarious but rather something raw and true. Not many writers these days are willing to tell their story and show the world what life is really like. You see many psychologists have stated that people with mental illness, especially depression have a more realistic view on life. People with mental illness see the world for what it is and does not try to paint it any differently and that is part of the reason they are depressed because they know that life is not perfect nor great. I believe this to be true for Bukowski his writing is true,realistic and honest. For the readers who suffer from mental illness or life’s hardships then they can relate to Henry’s character on an emotional, spiritual and deep way. While the rest of the readers dismiss this reality and see it as just another novel written in a unique and funny way. This novel is definitely a must read for those who are open to interpretation and are eager to experience the dark sides of life through this character.
In conclusion, I truly recommend this novel because it carries something so unlike what we see today. Not only do I find myself within the character but it also serves a purpose as a way of showing people who life is not beautiful and it is not perfect. Life is hard, chaotic, relentless and cruel. The only difference is some people have the strength to see it for what it is while others want to hide behind this picture of what they wish and think life to be. I truly wish I could have met Bukowski in order to speak with him. I believe I could learn from him and perhaps write my own novel one day to allow people the chance of realizing that life is not perfect and it is not easy. Perhaps I could teach people the grand lesson of treating others the way you want to be treated. You never know what someone is going through and therefore you should treat them with respect. If, on the off-chance, you do know what they are going through and you treat their story as something humorous, then you have clearly never experienced life to its fullest and are in no place to judge because until you have felt the true pain of what life brings, then you can never truly understand what it is like to live in this world. This is why I enjoy this novel and would recommend it because of the truth it carries.