Bukowski, Charles (Short Story Criticism)
Charles Bukowski 1920–-1994
(Born Henry Charles Bukowski, Jr.) German-born American short story writer, poet, and novelist. See also Charles Bukowski Poetry Criticism, Charles Bukowski Literary Criticism (Volume 2), and Volumes 5, 9, 108.
Bukowski enjoyed a sound reputation as a prolific underground writer who explored the dissolute underbelly of skid-row America—specifically the Los Angeles lower-classes—in both fiction and poetry. Bukowski’s short fiction concentrates on uncontrite drinking and generally anti-social behavior, employing a scatological idiom which serves to mock academe and animate his idiosyncratic style and ideology, while also contributing to Bukowski's often harsh critical reception. Bukowski is praised for imbuing his stories and characters with a empathetic humanity and self-deprecating, absurdist black-comedy, avoiding maudlin sentimentality, and instead relying on experience, direct language, and imagination to balance his writing. Bukowski's work helped give rise to the “dirty realism” prominent in literature of the 1970s and 80s, most famously in the short fiction of Raymond Carver. Bukowski is known for depicting violent and sexual imagery in his hard-edged prose. This graphic usage has lead some critics to dismiss Bukowski's work as superficial and misogynist in nature; yet others contend that Bukowski merely satirizes this macho stance through his employment of sex, drunkenness, and violence as primary plot devices.
Bukowski was born on August 16, 1920 in Andernach, Germany, and the family moved to Los Angeles when he was two years old. Bukowski endured a brutal, unhappy childhood. Rejected by girls due to his acute acne and often severely beaten by his disciplinarian father and other peers, Bukowski first discovered alcohol at the age of thirteen—a relationship that would inform much of his writing and lifestyle—of which he later said, “It was magic. … Why hadn't someone told me?” For most of his literary career, Bukowski drank heavily as both a survival mechanism and a form of hard-come, nearly mystical, regenerative ritual, writing that: “I have a feeling that drinking is a form of suicide where you're allowed to return to life and begin all over the next day. It's like killing yourself, and then you're reborn. I guess I've lived about ten or fifteen thousand lives by now.” The abuse Bukowski endured from his father, along with the isolation and extreme self-consciousness concerning his appearance, directly influenced Bukowski as a writer. After undergoing lengthy hospital treatments for his boils, Bukowski wrote his first story in 1935 about World War I flyer Baron Manfred Von Richthofen. He attended Los Angeles City College in 1939, but dropped out at the beginning of World War II and moved to New York City to become a full-time writer. Bukowski spent the next few years working a variety of menial jobs, drinking, traveling, and writing in literary obscurity. In 1944, Bukowski had his first short story accepted by Story magazine, a piece entitled “Aftermath of a Lengthy Rejection Slip.” In 1946 Bukowski moved back to Los Angeles and gave up writing; what followed was a ten-year period of heavy drinking, wandering, and surviving. This period in Bukowski's life—often called the barfly years—helped create much of the famous Bukowski myth. The result, described in the short fiction collection Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions and General Tales of Ordinary Madness (1972; also published as Life and Death in the Charity Ward, 1974), was a bleeding ulcer that nearly killed him. Bukowski took his survival as a sign of purpose and began writing again. His first collection of poems, Flower, Fist, and Bestial Wail, was published in 1959, while he was working as a postal employee. Bukowski continued to work menial jobs, such as factory worker and dishwasher, while publishing in small underground newspapers, mostly in L.A. At age thirty-five, Bukowski tried full-time writing again, this time consistently writing and publishing poems, novels, and short stories. Always a fecund writer, Bukowski continued to publish in literary magazines and with Black Sparrow Press and City Lights Books, respected independent publishing houses. Bukowski died on March 9, 1994 of leukemia.
Major Works of Short Fiction
Much of Bukowski's short fiction is semi-autobiographical and features Henry Chinaski, Bukowski’s fictional alter-ego. These stories usually involve the drunken escapades of the narrator in a variety of situations and personas: as philanderer, writer, gambler, outcast, iconoclast, schemer, brawler, criminal, jailbird, and father. Many of Bukowski's stories, like his poetry, revel in themes of sex and violence, often seen from an absurdist vantage point. His first collection of short stories, Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions and General Tales of Ordinary Madness, is, like its title suggests, about the elemental details of existence, and its prose is unapologetically lowbrow and celebratory of humankind's carnality and the body's exigencies. Hot Water Music (1983) contains stories which depict senseless violence, absurd situations, and a cruel and tragic fatalism. In the story “Decline and Fall,” a man named Mel tells a bartender, Carl, of his experience with two friends—a married couple. While at the couple's house watching football, the two friends have sex in front of Mel and then serve him the human remains of a fourteen-year-old hitchhiker for dinner. When Mel tries to leave the house, the wife forces herself on him as her husband watches. Shocked, Carl urges Mel to call the police. Mel denies the story, shoots Carl, and leaves the bar. In another story, “The Life of a Bum,” a down-and-out man named Harry spends an afternoon in Los Angeles drinking, sleeping in public, and wasting time. The narrative comes to a climax when Harry nudges an acquaintance, Monk, in front of a bus in order to steal the injured man's wallet. He then takes the money and eats at a restaurant, only to continue his aimless wandering around the city.
Critical commentary on Bukowski's short fiction is mixed. He is often praised for his truthfulness, even though at times deemed ugly and offensive. Some critics view Bukowski in the tradition of the American literary maverick—blasting respectability and conformity in order to reveal a visceral, unregenerate humanity. Many critics, however, regard Bukowski's work as superficial, pretentious, and misogynist. Yet other commentators perceive a tongue-in-cheek attitude behind the macho posturing. Reviewers often comment on the influences of Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller on Bukowski's short fiction style. The literary debt to Hemingway is clear: Bukowski shared with him a preoccupation with death, reliance on dialogue, and linguistic brevity. Miller and Bukowski employed a similar prose which is spontaneous with a distinct biographical component, and both individuals cultivated a mythic persona, as fictional and public personae are substantial to both authors' writing. Bukowski brought experience into fiction with a masterful technique of conscious selection and reorganization, creating personalities both distanced and close to Bukowski the writer and Bukowski the man. The autobiographical aspects of Bukowski's work are rich areas of literary scholarship; accordingly, critics frequently conclude that Bukowski's actual life is the subject matter of many of his short stories. As such, the stories are praised for their realism and lack of sentimentality, as they explore the lives of characters struggling to survive in poverty and drunkenness. Many commentators trace the development of Bukowski's stories: his later works tend to shift from a first person to third-person narration and are thus less autobiographical in nature. It is Bukowski's willingness to lay bare his exploration and celebration of the private self through writing that many critics perceive to be his most valuable contribution to contemporary American literature.
Notes of a Dirty Old Man 1969
Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions and General Tales of Ordinary Madness 1972; abridged edition published as Life and Death in the Charity Ward, 1974
South of No North: Stories of the Buried Life 1973
Bring Me Your Love [illustrated by R. Crumb] 1983
Hot Water Music 1983
There's No Business 1984
Septuagenarian Stew 1990
Flower, Fist, and Bestial Wail (poetry) 1959
Poems and Drawings (poetry) 1962
Run with the Hunted (poetry) 1962
It Catches My Heart in Its Hands: New and Selected Poems, 1955-1963 (poetry) 1963
Grip the Walls (poetry) 1964
Cold Dogs in the Courtyard (poetry) 1965
Crucifix in a Deathhand: New Poems, 1963-1965 (poetry) 1965
The Genius of the Crowd (poetry) 1966
The Girls (poetry) 1966
Night's Work (poetry) 1966
True Story (poetry) 1966
The Curtains Are Waving (poetry) 1967
At Terror Street and Agony Way (poetry) 1968
Poems Written before Jumping out of an 8-Story Window (poetry) 1968
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SOURCE: “News from Elsewhere,” in New York Review of Books, Vol. 19, October 5, 1972, p. 21–22.
[In the following excerpt, Edwards offers a mixed review of Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions, and General Tales of Ordinary Madness.]
Charles Bukowski never did escape from California. Certainly he is quite unimaginable anywhere else, and he is still out there on the West Coast, writing poems and stories about his five decades of drinking, screwing, horse-playing, and drifting around, proving defiantly that even at the edge of the abyss language persists. “A legend in his own time,” the cover of his new collection of stories calls him, and that seems fair.
Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions and General Tales of Ordinary Madness is a mixed lot. Bukowski's main market, the underground press and the girlie mags, casts a long shadow here—as he says himself, “To get rid of a story you gotta have fucking, lots of it, if possible,” and the little formulas of commercial pornography (“one of the best fucks I ever had,” etc.) recur on cue. There are some heavy attempts at satiric fantasy, and a tendency to end stories with the kind of peek at the reader (“What would you do?”) usually reserved for high-school composition classes.
But Bukowski is more fun to read than that. He writes as an unregenerate lowbrow contemptuous of our claims to superior...
(The entire section is 685 words.)
SOURCE: “Madman Incarnate,” in New Leader, Vol. 56, April 16, 1973, p. 19–20.
[In the following review of Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions, and General Tales of Ordinary Madness, Evanier addresses Bukowski's popularity and maintains that “the gutsy, audacious quality of Bukowski's writing loses some of its freshness in this collection.”]
Upon returning to my favorite Berkeley bookstore haunts last fall, I was amazed to find stacks upon stacks of sexually perverse comic books replacing the old stock of literary and political journals my parents, I, and last year's student body had grown up with. Apparently, the latest campus generation has little interest in even those writers who try to discard the old forms in order to understand the irrationality of us all: Ionesco, Beckett, Kafka, Céline, Pinter, Barthelme, etc. In fact, many young people seem to have opted for no literature at all. Such recent counterculture gurus as Hermann Hesse, J. R. R. Tolkien and Kurt Vonnegut are already fading from the scene. When I asked the clerks if any poet or writer was selling, the name I heard most often was Charles Bukowski.
The Bukowski phenomenon is a peculiar one. For several years his column was carried by the now-defunct Los Angeles underground newspaper, Open City. He has had 20 books published by little presses. He has also been accorded the recognition of being...
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SOURCE: “LA Low-life,” in Times Literary Supplement, November 29, 1974, p. 1336.
[In the following review of Life and Death in the Charity Ward, Feaver praises the humor and intensity of the stories in the collection.]
In the sonsobitches school of writing you talk as you speak, but more so. Short sentences. Expletives. “Oh shit, oh shit”, your characters say nearly every time they achieve climax. Life is a balling, boozing, brawling merry-go-round and the tears show through the vomiting. Charles Bukowski treads the streets and pads of Los Angeles where many others trod before him: Philip Marlowe, for one, and the Kerouac crowd when they weren't in San Francisco or on the road. He writes evidently from experience, tightened up. His way of life veers between the campus poetry-reading and the charity ward where things reach bottom. It consists of shocking the folks one side of the tracks, letting rip the other side, and looking back to see how it all goes down in the world of books.
There's any amount of fresh, raging agony and ecstasizing in this set of short stories [Life and Death in the Charity Ward]. They are mostly very short and one-shot. As a rule, the author acts as guide, though other personae are sometimes created and given precedence—and in any case it's impossible to tell when Mr Bukowski is writing about himself or someone more so. He does three-line...
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SOURCE: “Short Changed,” in The Spectator, Vol. 233, November 30, 1974, p. 711.
[In the following review, Ackroyd provides a disparaging review of Life and Death in the Charity Ward.]
I wish that critics would nail the ‘down and out’ routine for the lie it is; it is all very well for socialist journalists to revel in the dead prose of George Orwell, but that game came to an abrupt halt in the 'thirties. Now we have an American writer, Charles Bukowski, who writes about alcoholism and poverty as if they somehow increased his stature. Degradation, it seems, can make philosophers of us all, but it does not necessarily make writers.
Life and Death in the Charity Ward is a collection of short stories which are not improved in the retelling. The ‘poet’ (this is his term, not mine) is taken to the charity ward and is sick; he goes to a poetry reading and is sick; he is raped by two women at once and is sick; he finds a drinking companion and they are both sick. When he is not vomiting, he is talking in glowing and sometimes frantic terms of the pleasures of oral intercourse. This used to be the thing to do among certain American writers, although Mr Bukowski is much more cool and self-effacing than the average genius:
“I think that you are the modern living master of the short story. Nobody touches you.” “Sure,...
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SOURCE: “A Sordid, Obscene, Violent Underground Los Angeles,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, December 11, 1983, p. 2.
[In the following review, Harper compares Bukowski to Ernest Hemingway and asserts that the stories in Hot Water Music “are imbued with the perverse romanticism of adolescent disillusionment.”]
Ernest Hemingway and Henry Miller are alive and ill and living in a rented room in East Hollywood—or so one might think after reading this collection of 36 short stories [Hot Water Music]. Sordid, obscene and violent, Bukowski's Los Angeles is more like Miller's Paris than Hemingway's, but our guide through this underworld responds to Hemingway's laconic stoicism, not Miller's apocalyptic rhapsodies.
Bukowski's narrators, who are sometimes “underground” writers like their creator, live in a world of cheap hotels “filled with prostitutes, winos, pickpockets, second-story men, dishwashers, muggers, stranglers and rapists.” The inhabitants of this world are all losers, because “life” is a game where the odds are stacked against you: “You might think for a while, especially when you were young, that luck was with you, and sometimes it was. But there were all manner of averages and laws working that you knew nothing about, even as you imagined things were going well.”
Lives of quiet desperation explode in apparently random...
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SOURCE: A review of Hot Water Music, in Punch, Vol. 286, February 15, 1984, p. 48.
[In the following negative review, Mansur underscores the superficiality of the stories in Hot Water Music.]
There is a bookshop in San Francisco where some 30 feet of shelf space are designated “For the Writer”. The space is fully occupied, and the floor area in front is usually well populated by Jack London's heirs. So let's push our way through and see what Californian writers are reading.
A potential bestseller could be Outdoor Writing (as it were, “First mount your roller-skates, gripping your pen in your teeth …”); or perhaps How You Can Make $20,000 a Year Writing, No Matter Where You Live (the first chapter entitled “To Hell with Manhattan”); or even, How to Write and Sell Your Personal Experiences. Evidently, lots of people think it beats living them, though they do not, I hope, commit them to paper with the aid of The Chicago Manual of Style; we've had enough of monetarist clichés.
Yes, the evidence of a growth industry is there: from the State which gave you Silicon Valley, discs of ready-processed words flop at an ever faster rate onto publishers' desks, thence to be turned into cloth or paper. And yes, every second person you meet is writing something (someone even wrote a book called How to Write “How-to” Books)....
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SOURCE: “A Bit on the Wild Side,” in Times Literary Supplement, May 4, 1984, p. 486.
[In the following negative assessment of Hot Water Music, Montrose contends that the “misfires occur far too often even by his erratic standards, the compensations too rarely and too meagrely.”]
Although not an exclusively autobiographical writer, the prolific Charles Bukowski has always drawn heavily on personal experience for his poems, stories, and novels; certainly, the presence of Bukowski himself, usually in the transparent disguise of “Henry Chinaski”, has normally been a feature of his better work. Fortunately, an eventfully misspent adulthood supplied a fund of experience rich in potential. Bukowski's uses of it were, admittedly, wildly uneven in quality, but, at his best, notably in various early stories, he reproduced the squalor and violence of low-life L.A. with the dirtiest of dirty realism. In 1970, aged fifty and with an emerging reputation, Bukowski became a full-time writer. Significantly, though, his most impressive work still derived from the preceding period of his life. But, by the mid-1970s, this source had worn thin. That the new material available—Bukowski's career as a minor literary celebrity—carried much less substance was strikingly illustrated by his third novel, Women, a fragmentary account of his life since 1970 that was little more than a self-aggrandizing...
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SOURCE: “Charles Bukowski and the Avant-Garde,” in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 5, No. 3, Fall, 1985, pp. 56-9.
[In the following essay, Smith discusses the humor in Bukowski's short stories.]
What is the avant-garde? A cultural elite, making Advanced or High Art, but it is also a tradition of the untraditional. Precedents exist for virtually every avant-garde eccentricity or innovation. As Roland Barthes puts it, “The avant-garde is never anything but the progressive, emancipated form of past culture.” While it may become politicized (during the Vietnam War, even “the gloriously impertinent Bukowski” was temporarily radicalized), it is typically individualist, antiformal, anarchistic. Bohemian life-styles, épater les bourgeois, the alienation (psychological, ethical, economic) of the artist from society: Bukowski's writing echoes all these attitudes.
Bukowski's opposition to the status quo is signaled by his language. The tough-drunk persona created in the writing is intimately linked to the way in which his fictions operate, and he shows enormous resource in working a subversive content on the linguistic level. We term “postmodern” those writers who have learned from modernism, and then added extrastylistic components. While Bukowski had to erase other voices from his work (Céline, John Fante), he rewrote Hemingway with postmodern laughter, forming an...
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SOURCE: “South of No North: Bukowski in Deadly Earnest,” in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 5, No. 3, Fall, 1985, pp. 52-5.
[In the following essay, Weinstein examines the similarities in South of No North to the fiction of Ernest Hemingway.]
In no other collection of Bukowski's fiction does Ernest Hemingway's ghost play such a major role. Even the book title, with that flatly articulated oxymoron reminiscent of Men without Women and Winner Take Nothing, alerts the reader to the Hemingway presence. The Bukowski/Hemingway connection is one riddled with complex ambivalences. I trust this brief reading of South of No North might indicate a few dimensions of that knot.
A first reading of Bukowski's collection evoked thoughts of his consciously creating a parody of the Hemingway style. Consider this excerpt from Bukowski's “Loneliness”:
“Maybe I'm no good at sex,” said Edna, “maybe that's why I'm alone.” She took another drink from the glass.
“Each of us is, finally, alone,” said Joe.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, no matter how well it's going sexually or love-wise or both, the day arrives when it's over.”1...
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SOURCE: “The Fascination of the (Extra)Ordinary: The Short Stories of Charles Bukowski,” in Against the American Dream: Essays on Charles Bukowski, Black Sparrow Press, 1994, pp. 249-79.
[In the following essay, Harrison traces the development of Bukowski's short fiction.]
I started with the short story, starving in little rooms around the country and drinking too much cheap wine, and I'd mail the things out to THE ATLANTIC MONTHLY or HARPERS and when they came back I tore them up. I used to write 8 or 10 stories a week. All I'd do was write these stories and drink as much as possible.1
Bukowski has published about two hundred short stories. He began almost compulsively writing short stories in early adolescence and broke into print in Story magazine in the mid-1940s.2 After several additional publications, he abandoned the form for almost twenty years. Although he returned to it with some chapbook publications in the mid-1960s, the impetus for an enduring return was the offer of a column to write virtually anything he wanted by John Bryan (the founder of the Los Angeles alternative paper Open City).3 These columns subsequently included opinion pieces, non-fiction sketches, and fiction, often, but not exclusively, of an autobiographical nature, and appeared in a context where Bukowski's “fiction took...
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Brewer, Gay. Charles Bukowski. New York: Simon & Schuster Macmillan, [Twayne Publishers,] 1997, 215 p.
Book-length study of Bukowski's entire life and career.
Byrne, Jack. Review of Septuagenarian Stew: Stories and Poems. Review of Contemporary Fiction 11 (Spring 1991): 314.
Positive review of Septuagenarian Stew.
Smith, Dave. Review of South of No North: Stories of the Buried Life. Library Journal 99, No. 4 (15 February 1974): 503.
Asserts that “a lot of viciousness and a little truth make Bukowski fun to read but, like pornography, dull in big doses.”
Additional coverage of Bukowski's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Contemporary Authors, Vols. 17-20, 144; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vols. 40, 62; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 2, 5, 9, 41, 82, 108; Contemporary Popular Writers; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 5, 130, 169; DISCovering Authors 3.0; DISCovering Authors Modules: Dramatists, Novelists, Poets; Major 20th–Century Writers, Vols. 1, 2; and Poetry Criticism, Vol. 18.
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