Charles Bukowski: A barroom bard who lived the picaresque
Speaking about Charles Bukowski, fellow poet and Open City magazine contributor Jack Micheline simply said that he was “an American postage stamp,” his name as popular as his first novel, Post Office, which has now been translated into 15 languages. A little while ago, I reviewed Bukowski’s collected journalism, published under the blanket title of Notes of a Dirty Old Man. The book, first printed in 1969 by Essex House (or a “porny publisher”, as Bukowski liked to refer to them), brought him a worldwide cult following, but it only contained 40 of the hundreds of pieces he had submitted under the Dirty Old Man rubric. A selection of the previously unpublished Bukowski columns has recently been issued by the San Francisco based publisher, City Lights. More Notes of a Dirty Old Man began as a personal, 15 year-long quest by its brilliant editor (and Bukowski scholar), David Stephen Calonne. Writing about Bukowski’s prose in the Afterword, Colonne posits that it “was a product of years of labour.” And he is right. In the course of over 40 books, Bukowski transformed himself from a drunken losel to an underground litterateur, aligning himself with a literary tradition inauguarated by the likes of Céline, John Fante and Fyodor Dostoyevsky.
Despite his chronic drinking routine Bukowski’s work ethic was incredibly assiduous and often saw him sit at his typewriter for 10 hours straight; a beer by his side, and frequently a woman languidly convalescing in the booze soaked, smoke infused monochrome phantasmagoria. There was always a woman somewhere in Bukowski’s life and his fiction, and these newly published works are swarming with them. The third piece in the collection opens on this very subject: “I was going over my old Racing Forms, having a beer and a smoke, really hungover, shaky, depressed, gently thinking suicide, but still hoping for a lucky angel when there was a knock on the door…IT WAS A WOMAN and What a woman in that 9p.m rain – long red hair down the back, jesus; tons of red miracle. And the face, open with passion, like a flower ripped open with fingers from the bud, a kind of fire-cheating, and the body was nothing but SEX, sex standing still, jumping, singing, looking, flowing, humming in the 9 p.m rain.” One look at the libidinous redhead and Bukowski could hardly walk, impeded as he was by “enough hose to put out a forest fire of napalm.” In true Bukowski style the story proceeds to relay impassioned “miracle and madness” fucking: “I had her nailed in the centre of the rug”, he says, “And then BANG the walls shook, a man on the street stepped on a grease spot, fell and broke his ankle, and we slid apart like worms going in different directions. Then I had to piss. I went to the bathroom…came out and she was…gone. Fast like that. No goodbye. Nothing.” He continues: “I looked north where I figured she lived with some fine intellectual chap…I took the green earing [she had lost] and threw it north, hard, high in the dark sky, it flew out of sight in the neon mash of lights from sunset Boulevard a block north and I said ‘Here, baby, your earing back and your life and all the rest, baby baby. But thanks for the splendid grade AAA fuck.”
The women who chanced their way into Bukowski’s life had no idea he would use them as material for his work, and he certainly never asked permission, preferring to labour under the aegis of literature. Bukowski frequently dealt with his female characters in a derogatory and near-misogynistic way, but, as the aforementioned shows, this was not always the case. Nor was he any more sympathetic to his male characters, or any less forgiving to his fictionalised self. In Women, for example, while speaking to a lover, he says: “I am more or less a failed drizzling shit with absolutely nothing to offer” – an opinion he upheld most of his life. In another immolation of self-criticism, Bukowski refers to himself as a “peepfreak and a jack-off artist”, but at least one who “has finally grown a little wiser” and realised that women are nothing but trouble – that following that post coital “walk from the bathroom” one starts “sharing a little two person hell”. Yet despite his bawdy outlook, Bukowski loved women: their voluptuous curvature, their allure, even their shortcomings. Recollecting a time he was heading to Valhalla, he bemoans the lack of female company: “There was nobody. Not a cunt under 40 within 400 miles. Life could be bitter. Even for a mindless savage.” Self-deprecation was always one of Bukowski’s strong points. It manifested, in part, from his early life, which was notably atrabilious, and of which he remarked: “A twisted childhood has fucked me up. But that’s the way I am so I’ll just have to go with it.”
And go with it he did – by turning it into semi-fiction. The crucial episodes in his autobiography are reworked time and again in his poems and prose; his oeuvre is, essentially, his story. Bukowski’s parents met in Andernach, Germany, shortly after World War I. His father, Sgt Henry Charles Bukowski, was serving with the US Army. His mother Katharina Felt was a local seamstress. The family immigrated to the US in 1923 following the collapse of German economy. When Bukowski was three, they moved to Los Angeles, the city in which he was to spend the remainder of his life, labouring in its low-rent milieu. According to various personal accounts his upbringing was shaped by The Depression, and his terrifying and sadistic father who took out his frustrations on his wife and son through terrible beatings, brutally inflicted for minor transgressions. The family eventually moved to Longwood Avenue, which Bukowski later referred to as “the house of agony the house where I was almost done in.” His adolescence was defined by isolation, the cruelties of other children and the stark indifference of his parents. It is perhaps, therefore, no wonder that he found it difficult to like people, felt contempt for humanity, preferring a largely solitary existence with intermittent periods of barroom conviviality, fucking, gambling, corpuscular brawls or any permutation thereof. Writing in another column on the subject he says: “I’m crazy. I like solitude. I’ve never been lonely.” But he had often felt like an impostor, and in the same columnhe characterises himself as “a bum, playing the role of Charles Bukowski,” before concluding: “Outside the cats played, the butterflies flew, the sun kept working. The party was over. Charles Bukowski was Hank again. Rent was needed. Food. Gasoline. Luck.”
Throughout his life Bukowski seemed to have just enough luck to sustain his precarious way of living, despite the evictions, the skid-row hotels, the hard-drinking, the desolation, the heartbreaks, the belligerent women, the unrelenting self-destruction – despite even Jane Cooney Baker’s death, after which he was so depressed he felt compelled to hide all the razorblades in his apartment so as not to kill himself. In fact, it seems as if the writing and the beer were the only two things that kept him trudging on. He knew the low-life odyssey, the hardships of the ordinary working class men, and wrote about them with more precognition than any of his contemporaries. Speaking about it in a two page column, he says: “It’s a world, it’s a world of potential suicide, well I speak mostly of the United States, I don’t know the rest, but it’s a place of potential and actual suicides and hundreds and thousands of women, women just aching for companionship, and then there are men, going mad, masturbating, dreaming, hundreds and thousands of men going mad for sex or love or anything, and meanwhile, all these people, the love-lost, the sex-lost, suicide-driven, they’re all working these dull soul-sucking jobs that twist their faces like rotten lemons and pinch their spirits out, out, out…somewhere in the structure of our society it is impossible for these people to contact each other. Churches, dance parties only seem to push them further apart, and the dating clubs, the computer Love Machines only destroy more and more naturalness that should have been a naturalness that has somehow been crushed forever in our present method of living (dying).” Bukowski’s scabrous and sturdy prose about the social and economic subjugation of the urban underclass is matchless: every word is loaded with experience, a badge of authenticity. For Bukowski knew what it was to have led the life of a factotum, drifting from one menial job to another, working graveyard shifts, going hungry, going crazy, before manumitting himself from his personal gehenna by quitting his most stable and long term job at the US post office in order to write. Accordingly, when he writes about the underclass who work eight hours a day doing “an obnoxious thing for their own survival and for somebody else’s profit”, engaged in activity which might see them in madhouses “full of occupationally-destroyed people”, his judgements carry the weight of direct experience.
But it’s not the mere fact that Bukowski has the ability to deliver his words like welcomed backhand blows; it’s the fact that his canon has a personal philosophy running through it which encourages liberation from the drudgery and oppression of modern living. And it is delivered by a simple, common man who happened to be an authentic and genuine barfly bard. Elsewhere in the collection, Bukowski elaborates on this philosophy: “If there is any secret to life”, he says, “that secret is not to try. Let it come to you: women, dogs, death and creation.” And so it was with writing, which he remarks upon in a poem called So You Think You Want to Be A Writer: “if it doesn’t come bursting out of you/in spite of everything/don’t do it/unless it comes unasked out of your/heart and your mind and your mouth/and your gut/don’t do it” concluding: “when it is truly time/and if you have been chosen/it will do it by/itself and it will keep on doing it/until you die or it dies in you/there is no other way/and there never was”. It certainly seems to have worked for him. Today, Bukowski stands alone in the history of American literature as someone who actually lived the picaresque – for as he admitted, his work was 93 per cent autobiography and the remainder merely “improved upon.” He produced a substantial, distinctive, widely admired body of work. And in a testament to his popularity, at a time when most books can’t be given away, his are perennially ranked among the titles most frequently stolen from bookshops. Bukowski once said that he wrote largely for himself in a bid to try and understand this “godamn life”, to avoid “going crazy”. In writing this way, and in living as he lived, he more than justified his own assertion that “brilliant men are created from desperate circumstance.” More Notes of a Dirty Old Man is a worthy edition which completes the legacy. And “there is something in it for everybody, the touts, the nuns, the grocery clerks and YOU.”
Great review, Dolly. I haven’t read any of Bukowski, how would you compare him to Henry Miller ? (And wouldn’t you say Miller lived the picaresque too?)
Thank you. I would indeed.
Interestingly, the two knew each other but never really moved in the same circles. Miller disapproved of Bukowski’s inordinate drinking, preferring to be high on life. As far as their work’s concerned Miller was philosophical in an intellectual way whereas Bukowski’s philosophy was quite crude. I think in essence, however, they had the same ideology in that life should be enjoyed. Both resented oppressive rules and conventions, both worked as civil servants and both took up writing professionally pretty late in life. So there are some parallels, I think.
Are you interested in reading Bukowski? If do I would suggest starting with Post Office.
I think I will – just found out local library has it in. I find it amusing, by the way, that Miller disapproved of someone else’s excesses…
It is rather ironic.
I’ll be interested to know what you think of Post Office.
Oh – Irony, I see…makes sense!
I will let you know what I think. Fortunately, I won’t have to steal the book from the libs because they have self-service…
And honoured to have you as twitter follower, Dolly.
A rare talent. You as much as him.
Of course, Bukowski was a bullshitter. Like most writers. He was one of the very few that understood how to craft a public persona and market it – or at least John Martin of Black Sparrow Press did. But that’s not to detract from some of Bukowski’s writing. He could be hit or miss though, in my view, and wrote as much dross as he did anything of worth. But I never actually believed all his bullshit about the multitudes of women. Though, there were some, obviously. I own 25 of his books, more than any other single author, and would say Ham on Rye is probably his best. Overall I don’t rate him as highly as I once did though. Henry Miller was a better writer, in my opinion. But as far as entertainment goes, Bukowski had the edge there – both Post Office and Women being above all extremely funny books.