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Tag: Notes of a Dirty Old Man by Charles Bukowski

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 A selection of the previously unpublished Bukowski columns has recently been issued by the San Francisco based publisher, City Lights.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.”

Charles Bukowski: A scuzzy rhymester with some dirty stories

Sitting inertly in the mid-afternoon sun, after a night of hellish revelry, I tried to shut out my companion’s comical cooing by losing myself in a book. I have been a little slack with my reading lately, thus needed a metaphorical kick up the posterior to propel me out of the lethargy. Earlier in the day, I had chanced upon A.A. Gill’s review, of some trendy eatery or other, replete with customary witticisms about the victuals and the somewhat unexpected topic of misogyny. I cannot recall the theoretical imperative which prompted Gill’s spiel but it got me thinking. There have been many writers throughout history accused of being less than favourable in their treatment of women, and more often than not Charles Bukowski has featured on the list. I personally don’t see it, but then perhaps I’m somewhat biased due to my unwavering love for the man. Inspired by the above thought, I picked up Notes of a Dirty Old Man and spent the remainder of Sunday devouring the collection of Bukowski’s newspaper columns for Open City, which by Bukowski’s own definition was, at the time, “the liveliest rag in the US”.

The “liveliest rag” in the land was a perfect match for the liveliest writer of his generation, who infiltrated the somniferous rodomontade of the literary world with his own brand of irreverent penmanship. The snapshots of Bukowski’s life, gathered in the book, cover a multitude of sins from “fucking up to, fucking out” from dying to live to living to die. Pondering the contentious topic of suicide Bukowski, says: “Suicide seems incomprehensible unless you yourself are thinking about it…I think it was in 1954 that I last tried suicide. I closed all the windows and turned on the oven and the gas jets…I stretched out on the bed. I went to sleep. It would have worked too, only inhaling the gas game me such a headache that the headache awakened me. I got up off the bed, laughing and saying to myself ‘You damned fool, you don’t want to kill yourself…some hangover, some column”. Some column, indeed. Unfortunately, there aren’t many columnists like Bukowski nowadays, fewer still labouring in the tenebrous brume of a hangover like some of their readers. It is a bit of a shame that modern day papers are filled with anesthetised and insular expositions about organic rhubarb compote, the dimensions of one’s carbon footprint, psychologically contented chickens and other suchlike middle-brow fixations.  And, don’t even get me started on the credentials of the excerebrose scriveners and pseudo-intellectuals churning this bullocks out.

But, perhaps everyone is indeed entitled to their opinion like the doctors at the county general hospital who told Bukowski “one more drink and you’re dead”. That didn’t stop him, not for a long while. He continued living “surrounded by full and empty beer cans, writing poems, smoking cheap cigars…and waiting for the final wall to fall.” That didn’t happen for a while either, at least not before he got hitched – on a whim. She sent him gnathonic letters bewailing her impending fate as a spinster; Bukowski took pity and prompted by some eleemosynary instinct proposed. He remembers: “I met her at the bus station, that is I sat there drunk waiting for a woman I had never met, spoken to, to marry. I was insane. I didn’t belong on the streets.” Luckily, she turned out to be “a cute sexy blonde…all ass and bounce”. A quick round-trip to Vegas and the two were wed-locked and bound for her home town in some smoggy part of Texas. She was a millionaires and a self-confessed nymphomaniac, he “the city slicker who had hooked the rich girl,” with nothing but a “very tired cock and a suitcase full of poems.” Eventually, the two went back to LA to live in a dingy bedsit, Bukowski recollects, very candidly: “When we fucked the bed would shake the walls and the walls would shake the shelves, and then I’d hear it: the slow volcano sound of the shelves giving way and then I’d stop. ‘No, don’t stop, oh Jesus, don’t stop.’ And then I’d catch the stroke again and down the selves would come, down on my back and my ass and head and legs and arms and she’d laugh and scream and MAKE IT.” Unfortunately, being a nymphomaniac she would also “make it” with others. “Every man believes he can tame a nympho but it only leads to the grave,” in Bukowski’s case, however, it led to a divorce. She later remarried a fisherman, or as Bukowski put it: “I once lost a million dollars to a Japanese fisherman.” There’s always humour in Bukowski’s sadness, and an admirable resignation to take the knockbacks with a drink, because “the waste and the terror, the sadness and the failure, the stage play, the horseplay, falling down, getting up, pretending it’s ok, grinning, sobbing”  is all part of the “grandiose romanticism” and politics of life.

In another column Bukowski relays meeting “[Jack] Kerouac’s boy Neal C[assidy] shortly before he went down to lay along those Mexican railroad tracks to die.” Neal was berserk like a girandole “jogging, bouncing, ogling” and singing like a cranky “cuckoo bird”. Bukowski recalls: “He never sat down. He kept moving around the floor. He was a little punchy with the action but there wasn’t any hatred in him.” There’s a sense of melancholy in Bukowski’s tone, and one gets the distinct impression that Neal was already too loaded on the “Eternal High” and  too quick on the pedal in the drag race towards death. Upon hearing news of Neal’s passing, shortly after their first and only meeting, Bukowski turned his column into a eulogy for the last of the Beats, saying: “All those rides, all those pages of Kerouac, all that jail time” and for what? To “die alone under a frozen Mexican moon,” like his life meant nothing to anybody, not even himself. And yet, it did mean something, in part, thanks to the “dirty old man” who wrote about it in his column, and felt the loss. In Notes of a Dirty Old Man, Bukowski ploughs through a phantasmagoria  of topics from the erosion of democracy to the aching of scraped knuckles, from psychotraumatic childhood memories to the “tragicomedy of fucking”, but always in a unique argot of a scuzzy rhymester and in a style entirely his own. Fucking features heavily throughout Bukowski’s work, but as he says: “I don’t write about it as an instrument of obsession. I write about it as a stage play laugh where you have to cry about it, a bit, between acts.” And he sticks to his word, crying and laughing intermittently in the subtext of every page while regaling the reader with some botched tryst with a whore and her interfering elephantine lesbian pimp. He does that, he cries and laughs, and then pours himself a drink before falling unconscious and letting the “world go by”. But not for long as there’s far too much loving, boozing, fighting and writing to do.

Notes of a Dirty Old Man is a bawdy, intense and candid book, diving into the ugly, the awkward, the tearfully funny and the heart-breaking without holding back. And one soon gets sucked into the frenzied coprolalia of Bukowski’s prose written with a recognisably dark sense of humour throughout. The collection offers a sublime insight into Bukowski’s psyche and the dizzying myriad twists of the writer’s life. Bukowski surmises it himself in the introduction by simply saying: “I am just an old guy with some dirty stories.” And he’s right, but he is also someone who writes about the “upside down, romantic, explosive things that seem to give chance to no chance,” and someone who loaded with an arsenal of beer cans and women power-drilled through minds and column inches affronting, offending and galling thin skinned Middle America because “sometimes you just have to pee in the sink.” 

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