Most of Charles Bukowski’s writing examines his life as a drunk, drifter, gambler, loner, and unemployed and unemployable creature of habit. As noted in many documentaries, biographies, and accounts of Bukowski’s life, however, he also had a gentle side. As much as he wrote about booze, horse racing, failure, hesitation, and loss, he wrote twice as much about love, genuineness, literature, and music. The themes that Bukowski explored throughout his career remained consistent; in his own estimation, the artist’s goal is to explore the same themes eternally.
Bukowski—perhaps even more than writers J. D. Salinger and Ernest Hemingway—also was interested in exposing phoniness. Considering that Bukowski’s characters are often drunks (his alter ego and antihero Henry Chinaski), it could be difficult to believe that Bukowski was deeply concerned with bad manners. However, a close examination of his work reveals a writer who is obsessed with order, ritual, and kindness.
Though he is often associated with the writers of the Beat generation, Bukowski felt he was following in the footsteps of the writers and musicians he greatly admired, including Pound, Faulkner, Hemingway, Jeffers, Fante, Fyodor Dostoevski, Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes Brahms, and Gustav Mahler. Furthermore, his writing contains biting criticism of his contemporaries, including Beat writers Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.
Bukowski worked a succession of odd jobs, had long periods of unemployment, and was a chronic gambler, but he did hold a steady post-office job for many years before devoting his life full time to writing. Bukowski wrote Post Office, his first novel, in three weeks after quitting his job as a postal clerk. The novel tells the story of Henry Chinaski, Bukowski’s alter ego, and his time spent as an employee of the U.S. Postal Service. Chinaski, like Bukowski, works for years as a mail carrier, quits, survives by gambling on horses, and returns to the post service as a mail sorter. He quits again and then pursues his career as a writer. Bukowski’s style is sharp, precise, and economical, and the novel is a hilarious and vulgar representation of a life lived “on the skids.”
Factotum continues the adventures of Chinaski. Unemployed,...
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