Charles Bukowski Bukowski, Charles (Short Story Criticism) - Essay


(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.

Biographical Information

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 Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

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

The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses over the Hills (poetry) 1969

If We Take … (poetry) 1969

Another Academy (poetry) 1970

Fire Station (poetry) 1970

Post Office (novel) 1971

Me and Your Sometimes Love Poems (poetry) 1972

Mockingbird, Wish Me Luck (poetry) 1972

While the Music Played (poetry) 1973

Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame: Selected Poems, 1955-1973 (poetry) 1974

Chilled Green (poetry) 1975

Factotum (novel) 1975

Weather Report (poetry) 1975

Scarlet (poetry) 1976

Love Is a Dog from Hell: Poems, 1974-1977 (poetry) 1977

Maybe Tomorrow (poetry) 1977

Legs, Hips, and Behind (poetry) 1978

Women (novel) 1978

Play the Piano Drunk Like a Percussion Instrument until the Fingers Begin to Bleed a Bit (poetry) 1979

Dangling in the Tournefortia (poetry) 1981

Ham on Rye (novel) 1982

Horsemeat (novel) 1982

The Last Generation (poetry) 1982

The Bukowski/Purdy Letters: A Decade of Dialogue, 1964-1974 [with Al Purdy] (letters) 1983

Sparks (poetry) 1983

Barfly (novel) 1984

War All the Time: Poems, 1981-1984 (poetry) 1984

The Roominghouse Madrigals: Early Selected Poems, 1946-1966 (poetry) 1988

Hollywood (novel) 1989

The Last Night of the Earth Poems (poetry) 1992

Pulp (novel) 1994

Bone Palace Ballet (poetry) 1997

Open All Night (poetry) 2000

Thomas R. Edwards (review date 1972)

(Short Story Criticism)

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....

(The entire section is 685 words.)

David Evanier (review date 1973)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 937 words.)

William Feaver (review date 1974)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 341 words.)

Peter Ackroyd (review date 1974)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 472 words.)

Michael F. Harper (review date 1983)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 718 words.)

Carole Mansur (review date 1984)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 811 words.)

David Montrose (review date 1984)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 665 words.)

Norman Weinstein (essay date 1985)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1512 words.)

Russell Harrison (essay date 1994)

(Short Story Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 12510 words.)

Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


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...

(The entire section is 138 words.)