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.