Written by Dallas Carver
Ham on Rye, a semi-autobiographical novel written by Charles Bukowski, is his own account of what it was like for him, aka Henry Chinaski, growing up in an environment of sour, violent, and tired adults at the time of the Great Depression. I was able to connect with Henry and felt sympathy for him throughout the novel, and feeling so close to his life is what led me to enjoying it so much. I can identify with the desensitizing feeling that arises from being constantly put down by those who you are supposed to look up to. It was his parents putting him down as a child that led Henry to put on such a tough, uncaring façade for the better part of his life.
The reason I felt a connection to Henry was because I understand how hard it is to connect with others when someone brings all of the insecurities you have about yourself to the surface. He had to endure frequent beatings and reminders from his father that he was worthless. I had to deal with my mother’s emotionally unstable boyfriend constantly projecting his guilt over his wrongdoings on me and disciplining me for doing the same things he did right in front of me. I was no older than thirteen and Tye had grounded me for dipping into his easily accessible stash sitting on the coffee table. I had never been in any trouble before, I was an honor student and I already had a hard enough time socializing as it was. On the first day of my two months of being grounded, he gave me an industrial size garbage bag and locked me out of the apartment, telling me that I was not allowed back until I had picked up enough garbage to stuff the bag. When I was done, it was established that I was to have no privileges whatsoever, and spent most days alone in my tiny bedroom watching the paint peel off around a damp crack in the ceiling. In next few years of high school, Tye constantly reminded of me of every mistake I made and making friends became less of a priority. Those years formed my character and made me the person I am today, much like Henry discovering his passion for writing through his repressive and abusive upbringing.
Throughout the novel, Henry fills simple phrases with deep symbolism, demonstrating how his feeling of being below others led to his difficulty fitting in and developing healthy relationships. Henry’s first memory is
“being under something. […] Nobody seemed to know that I was there. […] Two people: one larger with curly hair, a big nose, a big mouth, much eyebrow; the larger person always seeming to be angry, often screaming; the smaller person quiet, round of face, paler, with larger eyes. I was afraid of both of them. (Bukowski, 1)”.
This memory of his came years before his father started beating him with a razor strop, and still he shows a strong detachment and lack of connection with his family through the way he describes them. At the age of just one or two years old, his parents’ indifference towards him falsely teaches him that he is unimportant, and his father seemed to have instilled in him the belief that he was not worthy of any more love and attention than he received from them. Rather than attempting to work through some of these issues as he gets older, Henry engages in self-destructive behavior such as fighting, heavy drinking, and making passes at women more than twice his age. His behavior contrasts that of a happy and sound mind. He embraces his title of outcast and creates a larger distance between himself and his peers, “I decided to align myself against their point of view. (Bukowski, 236)”. Henry shies away from the possibility of creating meaningful relationships with people of substance and instead sticks to people on an intellectual level much below his. I believe he does this purposely, for fear that if people were to understand him they would challenge his beliefs about himself and why he puts on the tough guy act when in reality he is deeply affected by what people think of him: “the boils got worse and worse. […] I knew how hard it was for other people to look at me. (Bukowski, 127)”. He is aware that he doesn’t fit in with the group of Nazi supporters he meets at the college: ““My god,” I thought, “I am in the wrong place!” (240)”. But he still continues to hang around them afterwards. Although I would never associate with Nazi supporters, I understand that when you become a part of a clique comprised of bullies or negative influences, the fact that you don’t agree with their beliefs is insignificant in a time of loneliness and vulnerability.
Henry’s self-imposed identity as a tough guy is routed from his rough childhood and abuse from his parents. He was their target for abuse, and they made him feel as if he had to exist within a hard shell of a personality in order to survive the world. However, it wasn’t only his parents who formed his cynical view of the world; “I saw the gym coach, Curly Wagner, walking toward me. I ditched the smoke and clapped my hands. “Let’s dump ‘em on their butts, gang!” Wagner walked up to me. I had developed an evil look on my face. “I’m going to get all you guys!” Wagner said. “Especially you!” […] I felt good about that. I liked being picked out as one of the bad guys. I liked to feel bad. (Bukowski, 93)”. Wagner was just on of the many people who made Henry feel as if the world were out to get him. It was a difficult time for people during the Great Depression, and unfortunately for him, the people most hardened by the economic consequences of the recession seemed to target him as well. One instance of him being humiliated by a strange adult is when he visits the pool with his fellow misfit, Red, and tries to
“grab his legs from behind. I came up against something soft. My face went right into it. It was a fat woman’s ass. I felt her grab me by the hair and she pulled me up out of the water. […] “You dirty little pervert! Trying for free grabs, are you?” I pushed away from her and backed off. As I moved backwards she followed me through the water, her sagging breasts pushing a tidal wave in front of her. “You dirty little prick. You wanna suck my titties? You got a dirty mind, huh? You wanna eat my shit? How about some of my shit, little prick?” (Bukowski, 64)”.
Henry takes on this tough exterior as a barrier to protect himself from all of the cruel people waiting for him out in the world, as if the entire planet was populated by Mr. Wagners and perverse fat ladies.
This novel is more of a reflection of Bukowski’s views of himself than a storytelling of his, aka Henry Chinaski’s, life. Beneath the tough surface of Henry’s character, Bukowski provides an understanding of why he grew up to be the man he was. He shows us how his parents mistreatment of him forced him to act tough, as well as how he channeled the loneliness that he felt during those years to bring him great success. I believe that although writing the novel was emotionally trying for him, it allowed him to come to terms with his unjustifiably awful entrance to the world.