Charles Bukowski

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Charles Bukowski was born in Andernach, Germany, on August 16, 1920, the only child of a German mother and an American soldier father. Because of social and economic difficulties, his parents brought him to the United States when he was three years old. They settled in Los Angeles, where he was raised and educated. His father spent most of his working life as a milkman until he lost that job during the Depression, a tragedy that turned an already difficult family life into an unbearable one. Bukowski’s father was obsessed with pushing his son into attaining the American Dream to such an extent that young Charles left home after he graduated from high school in 1939. Their relationship was an extremely difficult one, and his father regularly beat him.

Though Ham on Rye (1982) purports to be a novel, it unquestionably documents the early life of Bukowski—his childhood, adolescence, and early manhood. The main character-narrator, Henry Chinaski, is certainly Bukowski himself as he records in vivid detail the poverty and oppression of the Depression years and the damage done to the poor and dispossessed during that bleak period.

Bukowski’s two uncles both died young because of their excessive drinking, though his grandfather lived into old age in spite of an irresponsible life of drinking and womanizing. One of young Charles’s earliest memories is the contrast between his family’s disgust with his alcoholic grandfather and his own memory of him as a warm and generous presence. Bukowski identified with the outcasts early, the isolated and the alienated, and indeed became the writer whose major subject matter documented those empty, wasted lives.

His early family life is a litany of violent beatings from his father, who was unfaithful to his wife and beat her as well when she uncovered the marital infidelities. His grammar school days in the poorest sections of Los Angeles also consisted of endless battles with bigger and stronger boys who mercilessly taunted him because he was awkward, unattractive, and German. He spent much of his time alone, hiding out from the brutality of the daily routine of school.

While his teen years brought more self-assurance on the athletic field, they also brought violent bodily reactions in the form of acne and boils that became so inflamed that he had to be hospitalized. His face was permanently scarred, pitted and ravaged by the skin disease; in the shower room, his fellow athletes cruelly mocked his naked body covered with suppurating boils. During a time following surgery on his face and back, he first felt driven to create an alternate, imaginative world in which he could live outside the agony of reality. He realized that he could become a hero only in his imagination and that within that world nothing could hurt him. In short, he had found a refuge and power within himself that answered only to him, This realization propelled him eventually into the life of a writer.

Several other key incidents reinforced his decision to become a writer. One took place in the fourth grade, when the teacher was asking all the students what their fathers did for a living; young Charles was struck by the fact that virtually everybody in the class lied, as most of their fathers had lost their jobs during the Depression; the teacher seemed to be accepting the lies at face value. The other incident occurred several years later when a sensitive teacher realized that young Charles’s “eyewitness” account of Herbert Hoover’s visit to Los Angeles was an elaborately constructed hoax and, instead of punishing him for lying, rewarded him for how...

(This entire section contains 1292 words.)

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accurately he presented his fiction.

Bukowski became a frequent visitor to the local library and would read a book a night. His early literary heroes were writers such as Sherwood Anderson, Theodore Dreiser, John Dos Passos, Aldous Huxley, and especially D. H. Lawrence and Ernest Hemingway. There is certainly little question which of these writers have influenced Bukowski’s literary style. His work is frequently compared to that of Hemingway not only because of the journalistic prose and distinctly lean sentence style but also because of such shared obsessions as violence, alcohol, and sex.

Bukowski attended some classes at Los Angeles City College but learned little from his teachers there, preferring the company of the novels of Fyodor Dostoevski, Ivan Turgenev, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, and John Fante. He did, however, excel in college drinking contests and gained a reputation, which he retained for many years, for drinking everybody under the table. He left school without a degree and worked at many different menial jobs—as a stock boy, dishwasher, elevator operator, postman, slaughterhouse worker, and baker. His novel Factotum (1975) documents the variety of banal occupations he practiced during his post-high-school years. Except for some prolonged working periods in the postal service, he never stayed at one job for very long. He seems to have chosen a life of insecurity so that he could write without the distractions of duty and career. In fact, his work generally records the life of a rootless writer, a drifter whose only duty is to the poem or the story. In between the writing comes an endless round of drinking, barroom brawls, visits to the track, and short-lived liaisons with alcoholic women. These affairs take place in cheap hotels or boardinghouses that cater to such lost souls.

In 1955, however, Bukowski’s excessive drinking landed him in the charity ward of one of the city hospitals, where he nearly died of a bleeding ulcer. After numerous blood transfusions, he left the hospital a shaken realist; he began compulsively writing and publishing poems in the many “little magazines” that were flourishing during the late 1950’s and early 1960’s. During the 1960’s, in the literary ferment created by the Beat writers, Bukowski, who aligned himself with no literary or political group, became a prime example of the artist as maverick. Because he was completely isolated and owed allegiance to no one, he could write about anything he wished. He became the quintessential “underground” writer and, as a result, a major cult figure, having won the “outsider of the year” award in 1962 from the prestigious “little magazine,” The Outsider.

He produced fourteen books during the 1960’s, mostly poetry of uneven quality. Several volumes of poetry, however, such as It Catches My Heart in Its Hands (1963) and The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses over the Hills (1969), contained a number of highly moving poems that convinced the most anti-Bukowski critics that he could create poetry of deep feeling and substantial literary merit.

In 1970, John Martin of Black Sparrow Press convinced him to quit working at the post office after fourteen years to devote himself to writing full-time. Bukowski continued to produce prolifically during the 1970’s, writing three highly acclaimed novels, Post Office (1971), Factotum (1975), and Women (1978), and many volumes of poetry and short stories. The 1980’s brought forth two major novels which have met with generally high critical praise: Ham on Rye (1982) and Hollywood (1989). Bukowski gained further renown because of his screenplay for the motion picture Barfly (1987), starring Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway. Known for wasting nothing, Bukowski wrote a comic novel, Hollywood, which was essentially about the making of the film.

Bukowski continued to publish volumes of poetry, his first love, and many short stories even after becoming wealthy as a result of his royalties. He is still considered a major cult figure, especially in France and Germany, where his books were consistent best sellers. Though in the late 1980’s his health took a downturn, he continued, as he put it, “playing with the poem.” His last—and longest—volume of poetry published during his lifetime was The Last Night of the Earth Poems (1992). He died of leukemia in 1994.


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The literary quality of Bukowski’s novels progressively improved, principally because each became more refined and sophisticated in terms of its form. The structure of Post Office consisted of a raw chronology of his years in the postal service, while Ham on Rye adhered to the pattern of a Künstlerroman. Hollywood has the advantage of being a full-fledged modernistic work because its form and content are virtually identical: It is a novel about writing a screenplay as it simultaneously records the difficulties that people encounter who drink too much. What saves Bukowski’s work from becoming a dreary record of the hopeless lives of a group of helpless alcoholics is his refreshing sense of humor, his ability to see the irony of his own behavior, and his complete lack of self-pity. His work moved more clearly toward satire with each new novel, demonstrating his ability to see himself and his world in increasingly objective and compassionate terms.