Charles Bukowski, the author of Ham on Rye, communicates the harsh reality of his childhood memories through the unprejudiced voice of his alter ego Henry Chinaski. Henry is an intelligent individual with so much potential, yet he repeatedly gets rejected and neglected by a society that refuses to accept his uniqueness. One aspect of Henry’s character that I can relate to is the way in which he hides his history of self-doubt behind his art and tough exterior.
Growing up all I wanted was to fit in seamlessly with the other students at my school, however, my desperate attempts to conform to their expectations, I was still picked on not for how I looked or acted, but for something I had no control over and was simply a part of who I am. In grade one, my English teacher informed my parents of her concerns about my delays in learning comprehension. For example, when practicing how to sound out syllables and write the alphabet repeatedly, my teacher recommended that my parents have me assessed for a learning disability because I was continuously writing the number ‘3’ instead of a capital ‘E’, confusing syllables such as “ch” and sh” and I had tremendous difficulty processing instructions. After 3 long days of evaluation, it was proven that I was quire severely dyslexic. Once school started, they other students in my class teased me for being apart of Content Support, a specialized program designed to help students with learning disabilities. I was scheduled to work with Content Support during specific classes such as art and music. From that point on through middle school, the students who picked on me were cruel and I knew that I should ignore them, but at that age I did not have the confidence to stand up for myself, as a learning disability can often make you feel incompetent in such an intense curriculum school. They deliberately tried to humiliate me because I was not able to excel as efficiently as they were. Comparably to Henry, most of my childhood memories consist of feeling inferior in some way, and being stripped of my confidence, which has lead me to instinctively be hyper-aware of how in academic spaces.
Henry was raised in a society that did not easily accept individuality. The summer before grade 9, Henry broke out with acne that coated his body, particularly effecting areas of his body that were more difficult to conceal such as his face, and neck. Acne stole his confidence, as “it happened just as [he] was beginning to be accepted as a tough guy and a leader,” (122). His acne prevented him from excelling socially compared to what seems like the rest of the word from his perspective, causing him to withdraw from his peers, and commence his independent pursuit of self-discovery. He describes this as being a more daunting experience; “I watched people from afar, it was like a stage play only they were on stage and I was an audience of one,” (122). This has a significant impact on his perception of reality. Bukowski uses his passion for writing to explore his emotions from an exterior perspective, and get some closure from his past. In this scene, Henry blames his acne for blinding people from seeing his true potential, but it becomes clear that he is also embarrassed with himself for allowing himself to believe in their taunts and jeers.
Henry’s father slashed him every day with a razor strop, using beatings at any opportunity to ‘teach’ him the harsh reality of the real world. Eventually, Henry’s father was not as intimidating, as he began to untangle the subtle differences between the two emotions he felt – pain and fear; “my father seemed to sense the difference in me and he began to lash me harder, again and again, but the more he beat me the less I felt. It was almost as if he was the one who was helpless,” (121). When he realizes that his father, the bully, was beating him to feel powerful, beating him to see the fear in his eyes, Henry’s fear of his father disappeared, and the beatings finally stop. Henry realized that his father could make him feel pain, but it was himself who put fear on the table. As a result of Henry’s upbringing, and events that made him feel rejected by society, Henry was left with no other alternative but to isolate himself and come to terms with himself as being a loner, an underdog, and an outcast; “what I minded was that they didn’t know how to deal with me,” (136). Just one hundred pages later we’re able to see that his perception of himself and of his past hasn’t changed all that much, when he states, “I had no Freedom. I had nothing,” (236).
Eventually as time went on, Henry made connections with people whom had the same passion for expressing their growth and surpassing of personal challenges through writing as a vehicle. Having these connections and reassurances gave Henry the freedom to create what he wanted; vomiting his more pure emotions onto a blank page. Through this process, Henry slowly exposes them to his sensitive yet resilient qualities. Although there are signs that Henry’s character is evolving into a more what society would deem a decent human being, there are also signs that he hasn’t changed at all, that his progress is merely a lie; “my white t-shit stained with wine, burned, with many cigarettes and cigar holes, spotted with blood and vomit,” (254). Henry depends on alcohol to relieve him of the pressure he feels to make something of himself. Drinking makes the bad go away; I have found something that is going to help me, for a long long time to come,” (96).
Henry faced a lot of challenges, and it seems that he starts to get stronger from his lowest of lows. With the help of his bold character and passion for writing, he makes it through alive. Being hyper-aware of his uniqueness when socializing, and having been beaten, left Henry with a lot of insecurities. Through the art of writing, and through his increased ability to socialize, Henry begins to come off as a strong and resilient character. However, I believe that despite this newfound strength and self-discovered pride in his uniqueness, Henry has only created a stronger defence to surround his continued state of fragility. I can relate to the way he has grown and discovered himself, but remains shamefully afraid of his uniqueness deep down within himself.