SOURCE: "Paying for Horses," in London Magazine, Vol. 1, No. 15, December 1974/January 1975, pp. 35-54.
[In the following interview, Bukowski discusses his writing and life.]
Charles Bukowski was born in Andernach, Germany. When he was two years old, his parents brought him to the United States; and he was raised in Los Angeles, where, after a long period of bumming around the country, he still lives.
Bukowski, mostly self-educated, began writing in his early twenties. Ignored, he stopped. Ten years later he started again and since then has published about twenty books of poetry, hundreds of short stories and one novel, Post Office. Bukowski's writing is about an existence he once sought out for himself, so knows firsthand: he writes about the lower classes paddling as fast as they can to avoid drowning in the shit life pours on them. His characters, if they are employed at all, hold down dull, starvation-wage jobs. Off work they drink too much and live chaotically. Their attempts to make it—with women, at the race track or simply from day to day—are sometimes pathetic, sometimes nasty, often hilarious.
On the day of this interview, Bukowski was living, temporarily, in a typical Los Angeles apartment building: low and square with a paved courtyard in the center. He was standing at the top of the stairs that led to his second-floor rooms. Broad, but not a tall man, he was dressed in a print shirt and blue jeans pulled tight under a beer belly. His long, dark hair was combed straight back. He had a wiry beard and moustache, both flecked with grey. "You didn't bring a bottle," he said slowly, chuckling and walking inside. "My girl was afraid you'd bring a fifth and get me so drunk that I wouldn't be able to take care of business when I see her tonight."
In the living room, he sat down on a bed which also served as a couch. He lit a cigarette, put it in an ashtray and clasped his hands between his knees. Aside from reaching for that cigarette or lighting another one, he seldom made a gesture. To the first questions, his answers were taciturn, just one or two sentences; yet he frequently accused himself of being long-winded. Reassured that he was not, he gradually became more and more talkative.
When the interview ended, Bukowski rose and walked to a table on the opposite side of the room. He picked up a pamphlet, flipped it open and said, "Look at this. Something's going on." The pamphlet turned out to be an autograph dealer's catalogue, and it listed about a dozen Bukowski letters for sale. He stared at the list a moment, tossed the catalogue back on the table and mumbled, "I'll make it, man. I'll make it."
[Wennersten:] What were your parents and your childhood like?
[Bukowski:] Oh, God. Well, my parents were of German extraction. My mother was born there; and my father's people were German, although he came out of Pasadena.
My father liked to whip me with a razor strop. My mother backed him. A sad story. Very good discipline all the way through, but very little love going either direction. Good training for the world, though, they made me ready. Today, watching other children, I'd say one thing they taught me was not to weep too much when something goes wrong. In other words, they hardened me to what I was going to go through: the bum, the road, all the bad jobs and the adversity. Since my early life hadn't...
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been soft, the rest didn't come as such a shock.
We lived at 2122 Longwood Avenue. That's a little bit west and a little bit south of here. When I first started shacking with women, I lived near downtown; and it seems like through the years each move I make is further west and further north. I felt myself going towards Beverly Hills at one time. I'm in this place now, because I got booted out of the house where I lived with this lady. We had a minor split, so all of a sudden I came back south a bit. I got thrown off course. I guess I'm not going to make Beverly Hills.
What changes have you seen in Los Angeles during the years you've lived here?
Nothing astounding. It's gotten bigger, dumber, more violent and greedier. It's developed along the same lines as the rest of civilization.
But there's a part of LA—you take it away from Hollywood, Disneyland and the ocean, which are places I stay away from, except the beaches in wintertime when there's no one around—where there's a good, easy feeling. People here have a way of minding their own damned business. You can get isolation here, or you can have a party. I can get on that phone and in an hour have a dozen people over drinking and laughing. And that's not because I'm a writer who's getting known a little. This has always been, even before I had any luck. But they won't come unless I phone them, unless I want them. You can have isolation, or you can have the crowd. I tend to mix the two, with a preference for isolation.
One of your short stories has this line in it: "LA is the cruelest city in the world." Do you believe it is?
I don't think LA is the cruelest city. It's one of the least cruel. If you're on the bum and know a few people, you can get a buck here and there, float around and always find a place to lay up overnight. People will tolerate you for a night. Then you go to the next pad. I put people up overnight. I say, "Look, I can only stand you for one night. You've got to go." But I put them up. It's a thing people in LA do. Maybe they do it elsewhere, and I just haven't seen it.
I don't get the feeling of cruelty here that I get from New York City. Philadelphia has nice rays, too; it has a good feeling. So does New Orleans. San Francisco isn't all they say it is. If I had to rate cities, I'd put LA right up on top: LA, Philadelphia, New Orleans. Those are places where somebody can live.
I've left LA many times, but I always come back. You live in a town all of your life, and you get to know every street corner. You've got the layout of the whole land. You have this picture of where you are. When I hit a strange town, I seldom got out of the neighborhood. I'd settle within an area of two or three blocks: the bar, the room I lived in and the streets around them. That's all I knew about a town, so I always felt lost; I was never located, never quite knew where I was. Since I was raised in LA, I've always had the geographical and spiritual feeling of being here. I've had time to learn this city. I can't see any other place than LA.
Do you still travel a lot?
I've done my traveling. I've traveled so damn much, mostly via buses or some other cheap mode, that I've gotten tired of it. At one time I had this idea that one could live on a bus forever: traveling, eating, getting off, shitting, getting back on that bus. (I don't know where the income was supposed to come from.) I had the strange idea that one could stay in motion forever. There was something fascinating about constant motion, because you're not tied down. Well, it was fascinating for a while; and then I got un-fascinated, or non-fascinated. Now I hardly travel; I hate going to the drugstore.
What turned you off about New York?
I didn't like it. I didn't have a taste for it. I don't think I could ever like New York, and there's no need to go there. I guess New York was almost the beginning of American civilization. Now it's the top of our civilization. It represents what we mean. I don't like what we mean, what New Yorkers mean.
I landed there with $7 and no job. I walked out of the bus station into Times Square. It was when all the people were getting off their jobs. They came roaring out of these holes in the ground, these subways. They knocked me about, spun me about. The people were more brutal than any I'd ever seen anywhere else. It was dark and dank, and the buildings were so damned tall. When you only have $7 in your pocket and look up at those huge buildings….
Of course, I deliberately went to New York broke. I went to every town broke in order to learn that town from the bottom. You come into a town from the top—you know, fancy hotel, fancy dinners, fancy drinks, money in your pocket—and you're not seeing that town at all. True, I denied myself a full view. I got a bottom view, which I didn't like; but I was more interested in what was going on at the bottom. I thought that was the place. I found out it wasn't. I used to think the real men (people you can put up with for over ten minutes) were at the bottom, instead of at the top. The real men aren't at the top, middle or bottom. There's no location. They're just very scarce; there aren't many of them.
Why was San Francisco a disappointment?
You get the big build-up, you know, in literature and movies and God knows where else. I got up there and looked around, and it didn't seem to live up to it. The build-up was too big; so when I finally got there, there was a natural letdown. And when I hit San Francisco, I knew I had to hustle a job. I knew some guy would hire me, pay me a bit of money, and I'd have to bust my ass and be grateful that I had a job. It was the same as every place else.
Most cities are alike: you've got people, a business district, whore-houses, police who hassle you and a bunch of bad poets walking around. Maybe the weather is different, and the people have slightly different accents; that's about it. But, like I said, LA has a spiritual and geographical difference which, because I've been hanging around it, I've picked up on. I have an acquaintanceship with LA, you might say.
Now, women are a lot different than cities. If you're lucky, you do all right. You've got to be lucky with women, because the way you meet them is mostly through accident. If you turn right at a corner, you meet this one; if you turn left, you meet the other one. Love is a form of accident. The population bounces together, and two people meet somehow. You can say that you love a certain woman, but there's a woman you never met you might have loved a hell of a lot more. That's why I say you have to be lucky. If you meet someone up near that possible top, you're lucky. If you don't, well, you turned right instead of left, or you didn't search long enough, or you're plain, damned unlucky.
Did you do much writing while you were on the road?
I got some writing done in New York. In Philadelphia, St. Louis and New Orleans, too, in my early days. St. Louis was very lucky for me. I was there when I got rid of my first short story—to Story mag, which was quite a mag in its day. (They discovered William Saroyan and reprinted top-class writers.) I don't remember if I wrote the story in St. Louis, because I was moving pretty fast then; but I was there when it got accepted.
You've got to have a good city to write in, and you've got to have a certain place to live in to write. This apartment is not right for me; but I had to move right away, and I got tired of looking around. This place isn't rugged enough. The neighbors don't like any noise at all. It's very constrictive, but I'm not here most of the time. I'm usually over at Linda's big house. I write there and lay around. This place is for when things go wrong with her. Then I come running back here. I call it my office. You see, my typewriter isn't even here; it's over there. I used to pay rent over there. Then we had a split. Now I still live there, but I don't pay rent. That was a smart move.
How did you end up, at one point in your life, on the bum?
It just occurred. Probably through the drinking and disgust and having to hold a mundane job. I couldn't face working for somebody, that eight-to-five thing. So I got hold of a bottle and drank and tried to make it without working. Working was frankly distasteful to me. Starving and being on the bum seemed to have more glory.
There was this bar I went to in Philly. I had the same barstool—I forget where it was now; I think it was on the end—reserved for me. I'd open the bar early in the morning and close it at night. I was a fixture. I ran errands for sandwiches, hustled a little. I picked up a dime, a dollar here and there. Nothing crooked, but it wasn't eight to five; it was 5 a.m. to 2 a.m. I guess there were good moments, but I was pretty much out of it. It was kind of a dream state.
What poets do you like reading at the moment?
Auden was pretty good. When I was young and I read, I liked a lot of Auden. I was in a liking mood. I liked that whole gang: Auden, MacLeish, Eliot. I liked them at the time; but when I come back on them now, they don't strike me the same way. Not loose enough. They don't gamble. Too careful. They say good things, and they write it well; but they're too careful for me now.
And there's Stephen Spender. Once I was lying in bed, and I opened this book up. You know what happens when a poem hits you. I was thinking of that one with the touch of corn about the poets who have "left the air signed with their honor". That was pretty good. Spender got them off. I can't remember them all, but I know that he set me off three, four, five, six times. The more modern poets don't seem to do this to me.
It could be that I was more spiritually available to be turned on at that time and that I wasn't as much into the game. To be sitting in the stands as a spectator and see a guy hit a home run: Holy God, that ball goes flying over the fence, and it's a miracle. When you get down there and play with them and hit a few over yourself, you say, "That wasn't so hard. I just seemed to tap that ball, and it went over the wall." When you finally get into the game, miracles aren't as big as when you're looking on from the sidelines. That has something to do with my lack of appreciation now.
Then you meet the writers finally, and that's not a very good experience. Usually, when they're not on the poem, they're rather bitchy, frightened, antagonistic little chipmunks. When they get turned on, art is their field; but when they get out of their field, they're despicable creatures. I'd much rather talk to a plumber over a bottle of beer than a poet. You can say something to a plumber, and he can talk back. The conversation can go both ways. A poet, though, or a creative person, is generally pushing. There's something I don't like about them. Hell, I'm probably the same way, but I'm not as aware of it as when it comes from another person.
Do the classical poets—say, Shakespeare—do anything for you?
Hardly. No, Shakespeare didn't work at all for me, except given lines. There was a lot of good advice in there, but he didn't pick me up. These kings running around, these ghosts, that upper-crust shit bored me. I couldn't relate to it. It had nothing to do with me. Here I am lying in a room starving to death—I've got a candy bar and half a bottle of wine—and this guy is talking about the agony of a king. It didn't help.
I think of Conrad Aiken as classical. He's hardly Shakespeare's time, but his style is classical. I feel it was influenced by the older poets way back. He is one of the few poets who turns me on with classical lines. I admire Conrad Aiken very much. But most of the—what shall I call them, purists?—don't pick me up.
There was one at the reading the other night. William Stafford. When he started turning on those lines, I couldn't listen. I have an instinctive radar, and it shut me off. I saw the mouth move, I heard sounds; but I couldn't listen. I don't want to take castor oil.
What do you look for in a good poem?
The hard, clean line that says it. And it's got to have some blood; it's got to have some humor; it's got to have that unnameable thing which you know is there the minute you start reading.
As I said, modern poets don't have it for some reason. Like Ginsberg. He writes a lot of good lines. You take the lines separately, read one and say, "Hey, that's a good line." Then you read the next one and say, "Well, that's a fair line"; but you're still thinking of the first line. You get down to the third, and there's a different twist. Pretty soon you're lost in this flotsam and jetsam of words that are words themselves, bouncing around. The totality, the total feel, is gone. That's what happens a lot. They throw in a good line—maybe at the end, maybe in the middle or a third of the way down—but the totality and the simplicity are not there. Not for me, anyway. They may be there, but I can't find them. I wish they were there; I'd have better reading material. That's why I'm not doing all the reading I should, or like people say you should.
How much reading should you do? I've always thought that writers who don't read are like people who always talk and never listen.
I don't listen very well, either. I think it's a protective mechanism. In other words, I fear the grind-down of doing something that's supposed to have an effect on me. Instinctively, I know ahead of time that the effect won't be there. That's my radar again. I don't have to arrive there myself to know that there's not going to be anything there.
I hit the library pretty hard in my early days. I did try the reading. Suddenly I glanced around, and I was out of material. I'd been through all the standard literature, philosophy, the whole lot. So I branched out; I wandered around. I went into geology. I even made a study of the operation on the mesacolon. That operation was damned interesting. You know, the type of knives, what you do: shut this off, cut this vein. I said, "This isn't bad. Much more interesting than Chekhov." When you get into other areas, out of pure literature, you sometimes really get picked up. It's not the same old shit.
Anymore, I don't like to read. It bores me. I read four or five pages, and I feel like closing my eyes and going to sleep. That's the way it is. There are exceptions: J.D. Salinger; early Hemingway; Sherwood Anderson, when he was good, like, Winesburg, Ohio and a couple of other things. But they all got bad. We all do. I'm bad most of the time; but when I'm good, I'm damned good.
At one point in your life, you stopped writing for ten years. Why was that?
It started around 1945. I simply gave up. It wasn't because I thought I was a bad writer. I just thought there was no way of crashing through. I put writing down with a sense of disgust. Drinking and shacking with women became my art form. I didn't crash through there with any feeling of glory, but I got a lot of experience which later I could use—especially in short stories. But I wasn't gathering that experience to write it, because I had put the typewriter down.
I don't know. You start drinking; you meet a woman; she wants another bottle; you get into the drinking thing. Everything else vanishes.
What brought it to an end?
Nearly dying. I ended up in County General Hospital with blood roaring out of my mouth and my ass. I was supposed to die, and I didn't. Took lots of glucose and ten or twelve pints of blood. They pumped it straight into me without stop.
When I walked out of that place, I felt very strange. I felt much calmer than before. I felt—to use a trite term—easygoing. I walked along the sidewalk, and I looked at the sunshine and said, "Hey, something has happened." You know, I'd lost a lot of blood. Maybe there was some brain damage. That was my thought, because I had a really different feeling. I had this calm feeling. I talk so slowly now. I wasn't always this way. I was kind of hectic before; I was more going, doing, shooting my mouth off. When I came out of that hospital, I was strangely relaxed.
So I got hold of a typewriter, and I got a job driving a truck. I started drinking huge quantities of beer each night after work and typing out all these poems. (I told you that I didn't know what a poem is, but I was writing something in a poem form.) I hadn't written many before, two or three, but I sat down and was writing poems all of a sudden. So I was writing again and had all these poems on my hands. I started mailing them out, and it began all over. I was luckier this time, and I think my work had improved. Maybe the editors were readier, had moved into a different area of thinking. Probably all three things helped make it click. I went on writing.
That's how I met the millionairess. I didn't know what to do with these poems, so I went down a list of magazines and put my finger on one. I said, "All right. Might as well insult this one. She's probably an old woman in this little Texas town. I'll make her unhappy." She wasn't an old woman. She was a young one with lots of money. A beautiful one. We ended up married. I was married to a millionairess for two and a half years. I blew it, but I kept writing.
What happened to the marriage?
I didn't love her. A woman can only tolerate that so long unless she's getting some other type of benefit out of it, either fame or money from you. She got nothing out of our marriage, neither fame nor money. I offered her nothing. Well, we went to bed together. I offered her that, but that's hardly enough to hold a marriage together unless you're a real expert. I wasn't at the time. I was just some guy dressed in clothes who was walking across the room, eating an egg and reading a paper. I was tied up with myself, with my writing. I didn't give her anything at all, so I had it coming. I don't blame her, but she didn't give me much either.
She was arty and turned on to artistic types. She painted badly and liked to go to art classes. She had a vocabulary and was always reading fancy books. Being rich, she was spoiled in that special way rich people are spoiled without knowing it. She had this air that the rich have. They have a superior air that they never quite let go of. I don't think that money makes much difference between people. It might in what they wear, where they live, what they eat, what they drive; but I don't think it makes that much difference between people. Yet, somehow, the rich have this separation value. When they have money and you don't, something unexplainable rises up between you. Now, if she'd given me half of her money so that I could have had half of her feeling, we might have made it. She didn't. She gave me a new car, and that was it; and she gave that to me after we split, not before.
In a short story you made a sort of self-pitying remark that went something like this: "Here I am, a poet known to Genet and Henry Miller, washing dishes."
Yes, that's self-pity. That's straight self-pity, but sometimes self-pity feels good. A little howl, when it has some humor mixed with it, is almost forgivable. Self-pity alone…. We all fail at times. I didn't do so well there.
I didn't do so well as a dish washer, either. I got fired. They said, "This man doesn't know how to wash dishes." I was drunk. I didn't know how to wash dishes, and I ate all their roast beef. They had a big leg of roast beef back there. I'd been on a drunk, and I hadn't eaten for a week. I kept slicing this goddamned leg. I ate about half of it. I failed as a dish washer, but I got a good feed.
Another time, though, you said you enjoyed anonymity, that you liked the idea of people not knowing who you are. That seems like a contradiction.
There's a difference between being known by another writer and being known by the crowd. A good workman—if we can call it that—like, a carpenter—wants to be known as a good carpenter by other carpenters. The crowd is something else; but to be known by another good writer … I don't find that detestable.
Do the critics' opinions of your work ever bother you?
When they say I'm very, very good, it doesn't affect me anymore than when they say I'm very, very bad. I feel good when they say nice things; I feel good when they say un-nice things, especially when they say them with great vehemence. Critics usually go overboard one way or the other, and one excites me as much as the other.
I want reactions to my work, whether they be good or bad; but I like an ad-mixture. I don't want to be totally revered or looked upon as a holy man or a miracle worker. I want a certain amount of attack, because it makes it more human, more like where I've been living all my life. I've always been attacked in one fashion or another, and it's grown on me. A little rejection is good for the soul; but total attack, total rejection is utterly destructive. So I want a good balance: praise, attack, the whole stewpot full of everything.
Critics amuse me. I like them. They're nice to have around, but I don't know what their proper function is. Maybe to beat their wives.
In Post Office there's an episode about the flack you got from the government because of your writing. Did they actually give you a lot of trouble?
My God, yes. The whole scene underground: one dim light, the handshake, sitting down at the end of a long table, two guys asking me little trap questions. I just told them the truth. Everything they asked, I told the truth. (It's only when you lie that you get your ass in the wringer. I guess the big boys have found that out now.) I thought, Is this America? Sure, I'll back it all the way as really happening. I wrote a short story about it, too.
You've been published a lot in the underground press. Those newspapers, now, seem to have lost their original vigor. What happened to them?
They've turned into a business, and the real revolutionaries were never there. The underground press was just lonely people who wanted to get around and talk to each other while putting out a newspaper. They went left wing and liberal, because it was the young and proper thing to do; but they weren't really interested in it. Those newspapers were kind of a lark. They were a sign to carry around, like wearing a certain type of clothing. I can't think of one underground newspaper that meant anything, shook anybody.
You mentioned your problems with women. Didn't one of your girl friends recently try to kill you?
She found me on my way to another lady's house. I had already been there and gone and was coming back with two six-packs and a pint of whiskey. I was quite high at the time. Her car was parked out in front, so I said, "Oh, jolly. I'll take her up and introduce her to the other one, and we'll all be friends and have drinks." No chance. She rushed me. She got those bottles out and started smashing them all up and down the boulevard—including the pint of whiskey. She disappeared. I'm out sweeping the glass up, and I hear this sound. I looked up just in time. She's got her car up on the sidewalk, rushing it towards me. I leaped aside, and she was gone. She missed.
Many of your stories read as if they're written off the top of your head. Do you write that way, or do you rewrite a great deal?
I seldom revise or correct a story. In the old days, I used to just sit down and write it and leave it. I don't quite do that anymore. Lately I've started dripping out what I think are bad or unnecessary lines that take away from a story. I'll subtract maybe four or five lines, but I hardly ever add anything.
And I can't write except off a typewriter. The typewriter keeps it strict and confined. It keeps it right there. I've tried to write longhand; it doesn't work. A pencil or a pen … it's too intellectual, too soft, too dull. No machine-gun sounds, you know. No action.
Can you write and drink at the same time?
It's hard to write prose when you're drinking, because prose is too much work. It doesn't work for me. It's too unromantic to write prose when you're drinking.
Poetry is something else. You have this feeling in mind that you want to lay down the line that startles. You get a bit dramatic when you're drunk, a bit corny. It feels good. The symphony music is on, and you're smoking a cigar. You lift the beer, and you're going to tap out these five or six or fifteen or thirty great lines. You start drinking and write poems all night. You find them on the floor in the morning. You take out all the bad lines, and you have poems. About sixty per cent of the lines are bad; but it seems like the remaining lines, when you drop them together, make a poem.
I don't always write drunk. I write sober, drunk, feeling good, feeling bad. There's no special way for me to be.
Gore Vidal said once that, with only one or two exceptions, all American writers were drunkards. Was he right?
Several people have said that. James Dickie said that the two things that go along with poetry are alcoholism and suicide. I know a lot of writers, and as far as I know they all drink but one. Most of them with any bit of talent are drunkards, now that I think about it. It's true.
Drinking is an emotional thing. It joggles you out of the standardism of everyday life, out of everything being the same. It yanks you out of your body and your mind and throws you up against the wall. I have the 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 now.
Just a minute ago you mentioned classical music, and you make remarks about it in lots of your stories. Are you seriously interested in it?
Not as a conscious thing. In other words, I have a radio—no records—and I turn that classical music station on and hope it brings me something that I can align with while I'm writing. I don't listen deliberately. Some people object to this in me. A couple of girl friends I've had have objected that I don't sit down and listen. I don't. I use it like the modern person uses a television set: they turn it on and walk around and kind of ignore it, but it's there. It's a fireplace full of coals that does something for them. Let's say it's something in the room with you that helps you, especially when you're living alone.
Say you work in a factory all day. When you come home, somehow that factory is still hanging to your bones: all the conversation, all the wasted hours. You try to recover from those eight; ten hours they've taken from you and use what juice you have left to do what you really want to do. First, I used to take a good, hot bath. Then I turned on the radio, got some classical music, lit a big cigar, opened a bottle of beer and sat down at the typewriter. All these became habitual, and often I couldn't write unless they were happening. I'm not so much that way now, but at the time I did need those props to escape the factory syndrome.
I like a certain amount of interruption when I'm writing. I do a lot of writing over at Linda's. She has two kids, and once in a while I like to have them run in. I like interruptions, as long as they're natural and aren't total and continuous. When I lived in a court, I put my typewriter right by the window. I'd be writing, and I'd see people walking by. Somehow that always worked into what I was doing at the moment. Children, people walking by and classical music are all the same that way. Instead of a hindrance, they're an aid. That's why I like classical music. It's there, but it's not there. It doesn't engulf the work, but it's there.
There's a certain Bukowski image that's been created: drunkard, lecher, bum. Do you ever catch yourself deliberately trying to live up to that image?
Sometimes, especially, say, at poetry readings where I have a bottle of beer by my hand. Well, I don't need that beer, but I can feel the audience relating when I lift that beer and drink it. I laugh and make remarks. I don't know if I'm playing the game or they're playing the game. Anyway, I'm conscious of some image that I've built up or that they've built, and it's dangerous. You notice that I'm not drinking today. I fooled you. Blew the image.
If I drink two or three days in a row, I get pretty bad. Like I said, I've been in the hospital. My liver is not in great shape, and probably neither are several other organs. I heat up very much; my skin gets red-hot. There are a lot of danger signs. I like drinking, but it should be alternated; so I take a few days off now and then, instead of running a string of drinking days and nights together like I used to. I'm fifty-three now; I want to stay in the game a while longer, so I can piss a lot of people off. If I live to be eighty, I'll really piss them off.
Are poetry readings as bad an experience as you make them out to be in a couple of your short stories?
They are torture, but I've got to pay for the horses. I guess I read for horses instead of people.
How much time do you spend at the track?
Too much, too much, and now I've got my girl friend hooked. I never mention the track to her, you know. We'll be lying down, and morning will come around. Or we'll be writing. (She writes in one corner of the room, and I write in another. We do pretty well that way.) We've been at the track all week, and I'll say, "We'll get some goddamned writing done today at last." All of a sudden, she says something about the race track. It could be just a word or two. I'll say, "All right, let's go. You said it." That always happens. If she'd keep her mouth shut, we'd never go. Between the two of us, we've got to solve that problem of one wanting to go and the other not.
Races are a drag-down. There are thirty minutes between races, which is a real murder of time; and if you lose your money on top of it, it's no good. But what happens is that you come home and think, "I've got it now. I know what they are doing out there." You get up a whole new system. When you go back, either they changed it a little or you don't follow your nose: you get off the system, and the horse comes in. Horses teach you whether you have character or not.
Sometimes we go to the thoroughbreds in the daytime, then we jump over and play the harness at night. That's eighteen races. When you do that, you've had it. You're so tired. It's no good. Between her and me, we've had a rough week; but track season closes in a few days, so my worries will be over. Race tracks are horrible places. If I had my way, I'd have them all burned down, destroyed. Don't ask me why I go, because I don't know; but I have gotten some material out of all that torture.
Horse racing does something to you. It's like drinking: it joggles you out of the ordinary concept of things. Like Hemingway used the bullfights, I use the race track. Of course, when you go to the track every day, that's no damned joggle: it's a definite bring-down.
What do you think about the Supreme Court's recent decision on pornography?
I agree with almost everybody else. It was silly to relegate it to the local area, the town or the city. I mean, a man makes a movie; he spends millions of dollars on it, and he doesn't know where to send it. They're going to love it in Hollywood and hate it in Pasadena. He'll have to sense out how each city is going to react. My idea on obscenity is to let everything go. Let everybody be as obscene as they wish, and it will dissipate. Those who want it will use it. It's hiding things, holding back that makes something so-called evil.
Obscenity is generally very boring. It's badly done. Look at the theaters that show porno films: they're all going broke now. That happened very quickly, didn't it? They lowered the price from $5 to 49 cents, and nobody wants to see them even for that. I've never seen a good porno film. They're all so dull. These vast mounds of flesh moving around: here's the cock; the guy has three women. Ho-hum. God, all that flesh. You know, what's exciting is a woman in clothes, and the guy rips her skirt off. These people have no imagination. They don't know how to excite. Of course, if they did, they'd be artists instead of pornographers.
I understand thatPost Officemight be sold to the movies. If it is, will you write the screenplay?
I would tend to back away from it. I'd rather put any energy I have (I almost said "left") into a piece of paper: beginning a new novel or finishing the one I'm at or starting a poem. I'm like any other guy who's doing what he wants to do in his own way.
It's such a whole new field that, unless I have total control, I don't want to enter it; and I'm not well enough known to get total control. Unless they gave me my own head, I wouldn't want to do it; and if they gave me my own head, they wouldn't want to do it. I don't want to fight all those people to get my thing across. Once again, the radar tells me there'd be too much trouble.
What are you working on now?
I'm putting a novel together. A book of short stories is coming out, and some of those are similar to chapters in the novel. So I'm pulling all these chapters out, patching it up and putting it back together. It's a good exercise. The novel is called Factotum. Factotum means a man of all trades, many jobs. It's about many of the jobs I've had. I took the glamorous chapters out, which is just as well. Now I can have the everyday humdrum thing of the alcoholic, low-class, as they call them, workers trying to make it. I got the idea, kind of, from Down and Out in Paris and London. I read that book and said, "This guy thinks something has happened to him? Compared to me, he just got scratched." Not that it wasn't a good book, but it made me think that I might have something interesting to say along those same lines.
One last question: Why do you put yourself down so much in your stories?
It's partly a kind of joke. The rest is because I feel that I'm an ass a lot of the time. If I'm an ass, I should say so. If I don't, somebody else will. If I say it first, that disarms them.
You know, I'm really an ass when I'm about half smashed. Then I look for trouble. I've never grown up. I'm a cheap drunk. Get a few drinks in me, and I can whip the world … and I want to.
Charles Bukowski 1920–1994
(Henry Charles Bukowski, Jr.) German-born American poet, novelist, and short story writer.
The following entry provides an overview of Bukowski's career. For additional information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 2, 5, 9, 41, and 82.
Charles Bukowski appears in many of his own works, in the quasi-anagrammaticalalter ego of Henry Chinaski, who takes on many varied personas. Some of these personas have been labeled by the critic Glenn Esterly in describing Bukowski: "… poet, novelist, short story writer, megalomaniac, lush, philanderer, living legend recluse, classical music aficionado, scatologist, loving father, sexist, physical wreck, jailbird, pain in the ass, genius, finagling horse player, outcast, antitraditionalist, brawler and ex-civil servant…." Others would add a description of a caring, sensitive man with a finely-honed, self-deprecating sense of humor. Chinaski, like Bukowski, is able to step back and poke fun at his drunken, womanizing, excessively macho character. Avoiding maudlin sentimentality, Bukowski nevertheless brings a caring humanity to his characters who are typically outcasts living on the fringes of society. His sympathy comes from a perspective that success and failure are more a result of luck and social injustice than reflections of a person's worth. Bukowski's feelings for these characters is visible in the words of the lead character Belane from his last novel, Pulp (1994): "Of course, there were a lot of good people sleeping in the streets. They weren't fools, they just didn't fit into the needed machinery of the moment."
Born August 16, 1920, in Andernach, Germany, Bukowski was brought to the United States by his family at the age of two. He grew up in the Los Angeles area, experiencing a brutal, unhappy childhood. His father, Henry Charles Bukowski, Sr., was a strict authoritarian who "disciplined" the young Bukowski regularly with a razor strop. A slight child, scarred by acne and boils, he was also victimized by schoolyard bullies. Bukowski often underplayed the cruelty of his father, suggesting that Charles Sr. helped harden him for survival in a cruel, brutal world. Bukowski began attending Los Angeles City College in 1939, but dropped out at the beginning of World War II and moved to New York with the aspiration of becoming a writer. He spent the next few years working a variety of menial jobs and writing, without publishing success. Some critics have suggested his failure was a result of sending his work to inappropriate markets such as Harper's Magazine. Disgusted, he gave up writing entirely in 1946 and began a ten-year period of heavy drinking. The result, described in the short story collection 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. Bukowski also credits his drinking with helping provide part of his artistic perspective. He said, "Drinking is an emotional thing. It joggles you out of the standardism of everyday life, out of everything being the same. It yanks you out of your body and your mind and throws you up against the wall. I have the 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 now." The critic Loss Glazier alludes to this when he says, "He was able to turn his hand to fiction with a perspective unequaled in contemporary American letters. He had been through a stripping-down that would've killed any ordinary person. And yet Bukowski, rather than being weakened by each successive defoliation, seemed to get stronger with the knowledge of what was necessary."
Bukowski was first published in the underground magazines and small presses, gaining a reputation largely by word of mouth. His first book of poetry, Flower, Fist, and Bestial Wail (1959), deals with common Bukowski themes of abandonment, desolation, and the absurdities of life and death. The subject matter of drinking, gambling, music, and sex was considered offensive by many critics, but others hailed his crisp, authentic voice. The collection It Catches My Heart in its Hands (1963), a selection of poems written between 1955 and 1963, deals with topics such as rerolled cigarette butts, winning at the races, and high-priced call girls. In a review of the work, the poet Kenneth Rexroth said that Bukowski "belongs in that small company of poets of real, not literary, alienation." Bukowski wrote over forty other books of poetry. In addition to poetry, he wrote several novels, drawing on experiences in his own life for subject matter. Post Office (1971) dealt with his years as a letter carrier and mail sorter, and explored the oppression of petty bureaucracy and the numbing effect of mindless, hard work. The character Chinaski's refusal to go along with the program, to play the game, made the novel an anthem for the oppressed underdog. In Ham on Rye (1982), a younger Chinaski is the protagonist. Bukowski's semi-autobiography deals with Chinaski's early years under the thumb of a brutal, oppressive father, and a painful adolescence, lonely and isolated. It moves on to his brief college experience, then the life of hard jobs and heavy drinking. Although his writing was not well known in the United States, he enjoyed considerable popularity in Europe, and publication of his work there began to give him a measure of financial success. This success was enhanced when he was asked to write a screenplay. The result was the movie Barfly (1987), starring Mickey Rourke as Chinaski at the age of twenty-four. Bukowski's experience with the making of the movie is documented in the novel Hollywood (1989). His last novel, Pulp (1994), was published a few months after his death from leukemia at age 73. On the surface, it is a spoof of the hard-boiled detective genre. But the humorous novel explores questions of identity, the meaning of life, and the interaction of literature and life.
Throughout his career, Bukowski's reception by the critics was mixed. Many regarded his work as merely a re-hash of the sexual escapade literature of Henry Miller, covering ground that had already been explored, and adding nothing new. He is dismissed by some as a misogynist and sexist. But many critics perceive a tongue-in-cheek aspect behind the macho posturing. Russell Harrison observes, "The effect of Bukowski's depiction of women, chauvinist though it can be, is quite different from what his predecessors and contemporaries produced. Although depicting Chinaski as sexist, Bukowski at the same time, and more tellingly, goes to great pains to undermine this position." Indeed, it would be more accurate to characterize Chinaski as "pseudo-macho." Harrison points out numerous examples in Bukowski's novels where traditional macho roles are reversed, where the woman is the sexual aggressor who wants a man for only one thing and dumps him if he cannot perform to her satisfaction. He says, "… we have an absolute reversal of the scene where the woman (traditionally viewed as the romantic in such situations) falls in love and it is the man who makes (or thinks) the distinction between love and sex." There is also an insight into human weakness that raises Bukowski's work above the gutter it describes. Elizabeth Young observes, "In addition to its acerbic edge, Bukowski's writing always possessed a sense of the frailty of human endeavor … Bukowski's was a lifelong struggle to express himself clearly, honestly and concisely. He has similarities with Henry Miller and, like Miller, has had trouble over his alleged 'sexism.'…" Several other critics also comment on the influences of Hemingway and Miller. Julian Smith says, "Ernest Hemingway, the most accessible modernist, provided Bukowski with a macho role model, an existential material, and an experimental style already pushed in the direction of American 'speech.'" Several critics have commented on the presence of Bukowski's voice in his work. As Smith notes, "The intrusions of the author/narrator into the text are integral to many Bukowski stories, not merely winking to the reader but pointing up the text's artificial, fictive status. A playfulness clearly places Bukowski in the same camp as the postmoderns…." Throughout most of his poetry and fiction, Bukowski's real life is the subject matter. This became more evident as Bukowski began to achieve success and recognition. His persona of a hard-drinking, hard-living, tough guy began to become a burden. In the Barfly screenplay and the novel Hollywood, Bukowski probes the influence of money and fame on his alter-egos. Elizabeth Young, speaking of this transition, says that "Despite his decades of devoted reading and writing, his straightforward, largely autobiographical work received little attention until his middle years, when he was discovered by a disaffected post-Beat audience of younger readers…. His persona became increasingly fixed and near-parodic but he did attempt to write about the cryptic, complex ways of fame with honesty and intelligence." Bukowski dealt with the success of being offered a contract for a screenplay by doing one about his youth when he was an impoverished drunk. The theme of fame and money occurring by chance, and that the successful writer is the same person who was the hopeless drunk became central to much of Bukowski's work. Speaking of Hollywood, Stan Thies says, "Bukowski's foray through tinsel town doesn't produce the easy results we might expect. In a certain sense he sets a trap for the reader. Early on we are on the lookout for some scapegoat, someone who can be blamed for sustaining a world which so magically trades off quality and dealing. We never really find one, and perhaps we never really find the hero-god either." An actor thrives by losing the self while a writer such as Bukowski needs the self in order to record it. And it is this willingness to lay bare his exploration of his private self that many critics find as Bukowski's most valuable contribution to literature. The less autobiographical novel, Pulp, also deals with issues that are impending in Bukowski's life. As Dick Lochte observes, "Pulp was printed only months after his death … Though a few decades younger, [the novel's hero] Belane's sense of his own mortality is acute. Everywhere he looks he sees people and places he knew leaving the scene." The novel is described by some as a parody of the work of Chandler and Hammett, and credited with varying degrees of success on that level. But its exploration of the questions of mortality are more widely praised. George Stade says, "As parody, Pulp does not cut very deep. As a farewell to readers, as a gesture of rapprochement with death, as Bukowski's sendup and send-off of himself, this bio-parable cuts as deep as you would want."
SOURCE: "The Pock-marked Poetry of Charles Bukowski: Notes of a Dirty Old Mankind," in Rolling Stone, June 17, 1976, pp. 28-34.
[In the following interview, Esterly and Bukowski discuss topics such as the author's writing, his life, his relationships with women, and other issues.]
In preparation for tonight's poetry reading, Charles Bukowski is out in the parking lot, vomiting. He always vomits before readings; crowds give him the jitters. And tonight there's a big crowd. Some 400 noisy students—many of whom have come directly from nearby 49rs tavern—are packed into an antiseptic auditorium at California State University at Long Beach on this fourth night of something called Poetry Week. Not exactly the kind of event calculated to set the campus astir, as evidenced by the sparse audiences for readings by other poets on the first three nights. But Bukowski always attracts a good crowd. He has a reputation here—for his performances as well as his poetry. Last time he was here, he had both an afternoon and an evening reading. In between, he got hold of a bottle and slipped over the edge. Too drunk to read at the evening performance, he decided to entertain the students by exchanging insults with them. It developed into quite a show.
Backstage, Leo Mailman, publisher of a small literary magazine and coordinator of tonight's reading, peeks between the stage curtains for a look at the audience and says: "A lot of these people are repeaters from his last reading. Some of them were disappointed by his drunkenness: they thought they got ripped off. But a lot of others were perfectly satisfied because they felt they got a look at the real Bukowski—you know, the legendary gruff, dirty old man, the drunk who doesn't give a damn and goes around looking for fights. They saw Bukowski in the raw.
"At the other extreme, when I called him to make arrangements for this reading, he was completely sober and fell all over himself apologizing for the way he acted last time. He was very soft-spoken, telling me how sorry he was he got drunk and how he hoped to make it up to us this time. I was amazed. So who's to say which one is the real Bukowski—the hostile drunk who makes a spectacle of himself, or the humble, diffident guy who's worried that he might have let somebody down?"
A few minutes later, Bukowski, clad in an open-necked shirt, tattered charcoal American Graffiti era sport coat and baggy gray pants, shows up backstage, having finished his warmup activities in the parking lot. Pale and nervous, he tells Mailman: "Okay, let's get this travesty over so I can collect my check and get the hell outta here." Then he lumbers out, unannounced, onto the stage. Mailman turns to Bukowski's companion, Linda King, a spirited, full-figured 34-year-old poet and sculptor who has survived a stormy relationship with the poet for five years. "Is he all right?" Mailman asks. "Sure," she says. "He's only had a few beers and he's feeling pretty good. He wants to do well tonight." As the audience begins applauding. Bukowski takes a chair behind a small table on the stage. Hunched over close to the micro-phone, he announces. "I'm Charles Bukowski," then takes a long hit from a thermos bottle filled with vodka and orange juice prompting cheers from several students. He grins a half-shy, half-sly grin. "I just brought a little vitamin C along for my health…. Well, here we are, on the poetry hustle again. Listen, I've decided to read all the serious poems first and get 'em outta the goddamn way so we can enjoy ourselves, okay?"
As he begins reading, a coed in the third row who's seeing the poet for the first time turns to a friend and asks. "Do you think he's as ugly as they say?" Her friend puts her finger tips to her lips in contemplation as she sizes him up. "Yeah, but he's impressive-looking somehow. That face … he looks like he's lived a hundred years. It's kind of tragic and dignified at the same time."
That face. By any conventional standards it is ugly, and for most of Bukowski's 55 years that's exactly what people called it. That's what they called it during all those years when he was working at bone-crushing, mind-stultifying jobs in slaughterhouses and factories, living on the underside of the American Dream. But things have changed. The crude, antisocial alcoholic is earning his living with his typewriter now, nailing the words to the page in intensely personal, rawly sensitive poems and wild, raunchy, anecdotal short stories that have earned him an international reputation with translations into other languages. He writes about what he has experienced: poverty, menial jobs, chronic hangovers, hard women, jails, fighting the system, failing, feeling bad. The impression created is of someone with his foot in a trap who's trying to gnaw himself free at the ankle. Which could make for a lot of drab reading if it weren't for the fact that there's frequent relief in a sardonic humor that sometimes gives one the feeling that W.C. Fields has been reincarnated as a writer.
Bukowski's appeal was summed up before the reading by Gerald Locklin, a burly, bearded poet who teaches literature at Cal State. Locklin, who has been following Bukowski's progress for many years and has known him four years, was drinking beer with a couple students at the 49rs and observing: "I think of him as a survival study. This guy has not only survived problems that would kill most men, he's survived with enough voice and talent left to write about it. You know, you're always running into people in bars who say that if they could only write about their lives, it would make such great reading. Well, they never do, of course. But Bukowski has."
Locklin also believes Bukowski "deserves credit for leading us in a new direction in American poetry with his direct, spontaneous, conversational free-form style. Many poets had been talking for a long time about getting more of a narrative quality into their work, but until Bukowski no one really succeeded. He just did it naturally, without really thinking very much about it. The more traditional poets hate him for it, but I think the trend he started was long overdue. His kind of style has its dangers: it can result in a lot of very ordinary poetry, and Bukowski has written his share. But at his best he's hard to beat, believe me."
Another view has been provided by poet Hal Norse, who had a falling out with Bukowski after being close to him for several years. Writing about their relationship in the Small Press Review, Norse said: "Hateful as he can be—and, God, he can be so detestable you want to shove him up a camel's ass—somehow the warmth and snotty charm of the bastard come through so powerfully that he remains an attractive personality, ugliness and all."
So here the man is, making it at last. Sartre and Genet have volunteered compliments about his poetry. His position as an underground folk hero is secure. Colleges fly him around the country for readings. Some critics have gone so far as to compare his prose stories to those of Miller, Hemingway. The National Endowment for the Arts has blessed him with a grant. A university has established a literary archive in his name. His early out-of-print books are valuable collectors' items. The New York Review of Books, for crying out loud, has reviewed him. Desirable young women keep knocking at his door. And now they call the face things like tragic … dignified … even beautiful. Bukowski appreciates the ironies of it.
The face, no bargain to begin with, has been abused terribly over the years. There was a blood disease that hospitalized him for months as a teenager with boils the size of small apples on his face and back ("It was my hatred for my father coming out through my skin—an emotional thing"), leaving a lifelong imprint of pockmarks. Later, there were the cruel whores who gouged out pieces of flesh with their fingernails when he was too drunk to fight back, leaving more scars. In the middle of these facial road maps of past troubles is a bulbous nose, swollen and lumpy and red in futile protest against the exorbitant amounts of alcohol, and above the nose two small gray eyes set deep into the huge skull stare out warily at the world. An unexpected feature of the Bukowski body are the hands: two quite delicate lands at the ends of muscular arms, the hands of an artist or musician. Beautiful hands, really. ("I tell the women that the face is my experience and the hands are my soul—anything to get those panties down.")
Those beautiful hands reach for his thermos bottle after each poem as he gathers momentum, reading about his women:
this woman thinks she's a panther and sometimes when we are making love she'll snarl and spit and her hair comes down and she looks out from the strands and shows me her fangs but I kiss her anyhow and continue to love … —"have you ever kissed a panther?"
… the best one can settle for is an afternoon with the rent paid, some food in the refrigerator, and death something like a bad painting by a bad painter (that you finally buy because there's not anything else around). —"left with the day"
the race track:
… There are thoroughbred horses and thoroughbred bettors. What you do is stay with your plays and let them come to you. Loving a woman is the same way, or loving life. You've got to work a bit for it … —"a day at the oak tree meet"
one of his favorite poets:
… I find a black book by the typer: Jeffers' Be Angry at the Sun. I think of Jeffers often, of his rocks and his hawks and his isolation. Jeffers was a real loner. yes, he had to write. I try to think of loners who don't break out at all in any fashion, and I think, no, that's not strong, somehow, that's dead. Jeffers was alive and a loner and he made his statements. his rocks and his hawks and his isolation counted. he wrote in lonely blood a man trapped in a corner but what a corner fighting down to the last mark … —"he wrote in lovely blood"
and life in general:
… it's not the large things that send a man to the madhouse, death he's ready for, or murder, incest, robbery, fire, flood … no, it's the continuing series of small tragedies that send a man to the madhouse … not the death of his love but a shoelace that snaps with no time left … —"the shoelace"
The vodka is working; the old man is rolling. Bukowski is in good form, just full enough of booze to bring out the showman in him, and the audience responds enthusiastically. On the humorous lines he reads drolly, stretching out certain syllables for emphasis in his mortician's voice and managing to get the same inflections into the spoken word as he has on paper. Despite his often professed dislike for readings, he seems to be enjoying himself now, and to cap off the performance he surprises his listeners by reading a section from a novel in progress. An uninhibited account of an encounter with a fat, sex-starved middle-aged woman ("I'm sorry to say this actually happened to me"), it keeps the audience roaring with its outrageous exaggeration: "She flung herself upon me, and I was crushed under 220 pounds of something less than an angel. Her mouth was upon mine and it dripped spittle and tasted of onions and stale wine and the sperm of 400 men. Suddenly it emitted saliva, and I gagged and pushed her off…. Before I could move again she was upon me. She gripped my balls in both of her hands. Her mouth opened, her head lowered, she had me; her head bobbed, sucked, whirled. Although I was on the verge of vomiting, my penis kept growing. Then, giving my balls a tremendous yank while almost biting my pecker in half, she forced me to fall upon the floor. Huge sucking sounds fell upon the walls as my radio played Mahler. My pecker became larger, purple, covered with spittle. If I come, I thought, I'll never forgive myself…."
As he ends, most of the students rise to give him an ovation. He takes off his glasses and gives the crowd a little wave. "Now let's all go out and get smashed." He gathers his papers and gets up to leave. The applause continues as he walks away and, obviously pleased, he suddenly turns back and leans over the microphone. For just a moment, his guard comes down. "You're full of love," he says "—ya mothers."
with one punch at the age of 16 and 1/2, I knocked out my father, a cruel shiny bastard with bad breath … —"the rat"
Henry Charles Bukowski, Jr., poet, novelist, short story writer, megalomaniac, lush, philanderer, living legend recluse, classical music aficionado, scatologist, loving father, sexist, physical wreck, jailbird, pain in the ass, genius, finagling horse player, outcast, antitraditionalist, brawler and excivil servant, is sitting in the small living room of his three-room furnished bungalow, a tacky $105-a-month apartment with worn carpeting, scruffy furniture and frazzled curtains. It's his kind of place, one of eight bungalows in a small court just off Western Avenue in a section of Hollywood heavily populated with massage parlors, pornographic movie theaters and takeout joints. The lady in the bungalow next to his is a stripper and another tenant manages the massage parlor across the street. Bukowski feels at home here. For eight years he had lived in a similar cottage where his writing flourished, despite the fact that the place was, according to all who had been there, the filthiest dwelling they had ever seen (Bukowski personally, however, was, and is, immaculate; he's in the habit of taking four or five baths a day). Then he moved into a much more expensive apartment in a modern complex but he felt out of place and his typewriter fell increasingly silent. So he moved into this bungalow in the hope it would restore the right creative feelings, and so far it has. He hasn't been here long enough for the dust and beer bottles to collect in any appreciable quantities, but he's working on it. The only notable features of the place are two paintings that hang on the walls. They're by Bukowski and they're not bad.
He is guzzling from a 16-ounce can of beer, part of two six-packs I've brought along to help smooth the interview. He doesn't bother to put the six-packs in the refrigerator; it's apparent he figures we'll drink them before the evening is over. Barefooted and dressed in blue jeans and a faded yellow short-sleeved shirt with a button missing at the navel, he looks loose and relaxed. More relaxed, in fact, than I am—that Bukowski countenance is, after all, a little over-whelming in a face-to-face confrontation. Then, too, I've learned enough about the man in talks with people who know him well to know that nothing with Bukowski is predictable. His acquaintances have told me that he'll tolerate me and my questions, but won't go so far as to be cordial. So I'm surprised when he goes out of his way to put me at ease, shoving a beer in my hand and announcing: "I've been drinking beer most of the day, but don't worry, kid—I'm not gonna stick my first through the window or bust up any furniture. I'm a pretty benign beer drinker … most of the time. It's the whiskey that gets me in trouble. When I'm drinking it around people, I tend to get silly or pugnacious or wild, which can cause problems. So when I drink it these days, I try to drink it alone. That's the sign of a good whiskey drinker anyway—drinking it by yourself shows a proper reverence for it. The stuff even makes the lampshades look different. Norman Mailer has uttered a lotta shit, but he said one thing I though was great. He said, 'Most Americans get their spiritual inspiration when they're intoxicated, and I'm one of those Americans.' A statement I'll back up 100%, The Naked and the Dead be damned. Only thing is a man has to be careful how he mixes his alcohol and his sex. The best thing for a wise man is to have his sex before he gets drunk 'cause alcohol takes away from that old stem down there. I've been fairly successful at that so far." Grinning, he also informs me that a female friend had departed shortly before my arrival. "Yeah, I had her on that couch you're sitting on. She was pretty young, maybe 23 or 24. She was all right except she didn't know how to kiss. How come kissing the young ones is like kissing a garden hose? Christ, their mouths won't give, they don't know what to do. Ah, well, I shouldn't complain. That makes three different ladies in the last 36 hours. Man, I'll tell ya, women would rather screw poets than just about anything, even German shepherds. If I had only known about all this earlier, I wouldn't have waited till, was 35 to start writing poetry."
We start talking about his childhood going over the details, most of which are still painful for him: his upbringing in Los Angeles after being born in Andernach, Germany; the terrible plague of boils over his face and back, the constant beatings by his father, a milkman who carried Prussian discipline to extremes, whipping his son almost daily with a razor strop for all sorts of imagined offenses; the feeling, even as a young child, of alienation and isolation, of not belonging, of being somehow inferior and superior to his peers at the same time. "The school idiot always gravitated to me he recalls. "Ya know, the fucked up guy who was cross-eyed and wore the wrong kind of clothes and was always going around stepping in dog shit. If there was a pile of dog shit within ten miles, this guy would manage to step in it. So I sort of disdained him but somehow he'd wind up being my buddy. We'd sit around eating our pitiful peanut-butter sandwiches and watching the other kids play their games." Several other boys at school made a habit of beating up his hapless friend. For some reason, though, they left Bukowski alone. "They understood I was almost like him, almost as fucked up, but they were just a little wary of me," he says. "I seemed to have something extra, something in my demeanor that kept 'em from picking on me Maybe it was a wild look in my eyes, I don't know, but they seemed to sense that if they tried it with me they might be in for some trouble. And I guess they would have been too." His tone is casual, unemotional, but traces of bitterness sneak through. "I got pretty hard from all those beating from my father, ya know. The old man toughened me up got me ready for the world."
When he was 16, he came home drunk one night, got sick and vomited on the living room rug. His father grabbed him by the neck and began pushing his nose, like a dog's into the vomit. The son exploded, swinging from the heels and catching his father squarely on the jaw. Henry Charles Bukowski Sr. went down and stayed down a long time. He never tried to beat his son again.
At about the same time, young Charles started to frequent public libraries. He had decided that being a writer made good sense for a loner; the solitude of it appealed to him. At the libraries he was looking for literary heroes. Browsing through the aisles, he would flip through the books and when he found a page that interested him, he took the book home to read. "I'd find one writer and another," he says, "and after a while I found that I'd discovered the same ones who had pretty much stood up over the years. I liked the Russians, Chekhov and the boys. There were some others, most of 'em going a long way back. One day I noticed a book in the stacks called Bow Down to Wood and Stone by Josephine Lawrence. The title caught my eye, so I paged through it, but just the title was good. Then I picked up a book right next to it and when I looked through it I said, 'Hey, this bastard can write.' It was by D.H. Lawrence. There's a bit of color for ya."
He was badly disappointed in the contemporary American writers of the day. "I kept thinking, 'They're playing it too safe; they're holding back, not dealing with reality.' At least reality as I knew it. Hell, I'd see these people in the libraries with their heads down on the tables, asleep, with the books open in front of 'em and flies buzzing around their heads. That's a pretty good comment on the books, huh? Yeah, I guess that about summed up what I thought of most of the writing. And the poetry—Jesus! When I was growing up, poets were thought of as sissies. It's easy to see why. I mean, ya couldn't figure out what the hell they were up to. The poem could be about somebody getting punched in the mouth, but the poet never would come out and say that somebody got punched in the mouth. The reader was supposed to plod through the fucking thing 18 times to somehow puzzle this out. So when it came to both fiction and poetry, I thought I had a chance to make it 'cause what was being written was so pale and lifeless. It wasn't that I was so good, it was just that they were so goddamn bad."
… I can't help thinking of the years in lonely rooms when the only people who knocked were the land- ladies asking for the back rent … I lived with rats and mice and wine and my blood crawled the walls in a world I couldn't understand and still can't. Rather than live their life, I starved: I ran inside my own mind and hid. I pulled down all the shades and stared at the ceiling … I wanted to write but the typer was always in hock. I gave it up and drank … —South of No North
As a young man, Bukowski wrote hundreds of short stories, sending them off to the wrong markets, magazines like Harper's and Atlantic Monthly where his style and subjects didn't have a chance. When the manuscripts kept coming back, he figured they weren't any good and threw them away. By the time he was 25 his efforts seemed so futile that he decided to abandon his writing ambitions completely. That's when he hit the road on what turned out to be a ten-year drunk, a period when his life was measured out in six-packs and jugs of cheap wine. Along with the drinking bouts, there were countless odd jobs (he once guarded doors in a Texas whorehouse), a number of nights in jail and a few semiserious attempts at suicide.
There was also a woman named Jane. He met her in a bar and lived with her on and off for several years. They had two things in common: both were alcoholics and both were losers. Jane was bouncing off a shattered marriage to an affluent attorney. She was about ten years older than Bukowski, at the stage of life when, as he puts it, "a woman is still nicely put together, just dangling on the edge of falling apart which is when they look the sexiest to me. "Jane was the first woman who brought him any tenderness and he warmed to it. Up to the age of 22 or 23 he had never even tried to get laid because he was squeamish about his disfigurements and after he did start pursuing women he found they were usually out to hustle him. As a result, he soaked up Jane's affection and stuck with her even after the occasional nights when she allowed herself to be picked up and taken home by other men.
Jane's drinking finally killed her, and a couple of years later, at the age of 35. Bukowski almost died himself from relentless boozing. Eleven pints of blood were pumped into him at L.A. County Hospital to save him from a bleeding ulcer. When he left the hospital, his doctors told him he would be a dead man if he touched alcohol again. It made him so nervous that he walked to the nearest bar and tossed down a few beers—a nice touch for the legend that was to follow. After a period of recuperation, he settled into a routine. At night he worked as a postal clerk at the dreary downtown post office. Then, in the early morning hours, he came home to a dingy apartment turned the radio to a classical music station, sat-down behind a battered old Royal and—energized by a combination' of whiskey, rage and desperation—wrote poems: direct, brutally honest poems tinged with his pain and hostility but stamped as well with a certain compassion and justification for life. He sent the poems out to little magazines and underground publications where, to his surprise, they began to be picked up regularly, Soon small independent publishers were bringing out collections of his work. He quickly earned a reputation as an underground poet of considerable talent and there were signs that it wouldn't end at that. In 1963, in an introduction to Bukowski's It Catches My Heart in Its Hands, writer and critic John William Corrington was moved to speculate that "critics at the end of our century may well claim that Charles Bukowski's work was the watershed that divided 20th-century American poetry between the Pound-Eliot-Auden period and the new time in which the human voice speaking came into its own…. He has replaced the formal, frequently stilted diction of the Pound-Eliot-Auden days with a language devoid of the affectations, devices and mannerisms that have taken over academic verse and packed the university and commercial quarterlies with imitations of imitations of Pound and the others…. What Wordsworth claimed to have done, what Rimbaud actually did do in French, Bukowski has accomplished for the English language."
Heady stuff. Meanwhile, this newly heralded genus continued to expend a sizable portion of his energies sorting mail. It wasn't until 1970, with the encouragement of his primary publisher, John Martin of Black Sparrow Press, that he finally summoned the nerve to quit the job. Panicked at giving up his security, he pounded out the first draft of his first novel, Post Office—a kind of M.A.S.H. for civil servants—in three weeks, detailing in it the brain-deadening tedium and bureaucratic insanities that had gone with the job, along with descriptions of his brief, bizarre marriage to an heiress with a Texas fortune ("There went my only chance for millions") and his relationship with the woman who bore his daughter, Marina (whom he loves, visits weekly and helps to support).
Today he earns a comfortable though not gaudy income from royalties, readings and the column "Notes of a Dirty Old Man," which he writes for the L.A. Free Press. The big money may yet be on the way. There's a bit of wonderment in his eyes when he says: "I'll be sitting here trying to get some work done at the typer, and somebody will call about making a movie outta some of my stuff. Then I start talking about the author's cut and two-year options and how I gotta have net, not gross, and I think to myself, Good God, what's happening to me? What the hell's going on here? Now that I've got a little bit of fame, people suddenly are coming to my door. I'm wary of it. I think I can handle it but I'm wary of it."
And what if a great deal of money does arrive?
"I would probably get the fat head and be utterly malicious and stinky. Test me. No, if you want the truth, I don't think it would get to me at this stage. I've been through too much, been toughened up for too long."
Taylor Hackford, producer of a documentary on the poet for KCET-TV, Los Angeles, and holder of the screen rights to Post Office, says Bukowski is filled with ambivalence about the late arrival of success. "Sometimes he feels the recognition he's finally getting is well deserved and long overdue," Hackford says, "Other times he feels like it's all a big joke someone's playing on him, like someone's going to take his typewriter away and tell him they were just kidding. There's constant battle going on inside him between the feeling that he really is one of the best and a feeling of deep insecurity. I think he'll be all right as long as he doesn't get too far away from his typewriter. The one thing that could kill him is if he started doing a lot more readings, running around the country catching planes and staying in Holiday Inns. Readings make him nervous, so he tends to drink heavily before, during and after them, and it takes its toll. I think he recognizes this danger. In fact, he wrote a great story about it called 'This Is What Killed Dylan Thomas.' If he limits the readings and keeps the drinking under reasonable control, we're going to hear a lot more from the man in the future."
… I suppose a lot of obnoxious characters work their way into immortality. I'm working on it myself. —"the painter"
Bukowski, according to Bukowski, is at his "total peak. I'm writing less but I'm writing much better. There's more care in each line. I have a lot of self-doubt, so I know I'm measuring these things right. Right now everything has come together. I'm on my way. I'm unbeatable. Tomorrow morning is something else. Who knows, it may all fall apart and I'll go mad or raving or rape a goat or something. There's always the chance that I'll end up back on skid row, drinking wine with the boys. I'd never mention that I was a poet or any of that silly-ass shit. I'd just sit there and drink with em and say. 'Well, fellas, I figured it might turn out like this.'"
The beer is disappearing rapidly and his eyes are badly bloodshot back in those deep sockets under the bushy brows. A light on a desk behind him creates a halo effect around the top of his head. The halo just doesn't fit. He looks a little liverish, but seems to he feeling fine.
I ask him how much he feels his physical appearance has affected his life.
"I don't know. I suppose it helped to make a loner out of me, and being a loner isn't a bad thing for a writer. I know the face is helping to sell books now. The shot of me they used on the cover of Erections has done a lot to sell that book. The face on that cover is so horrific and pasty and completely gone beyond the barrier that it makes people stop and wanna find out what the hell kinda madman this guy is. So it was good luck for me to go through a lot of the shit I went through "cause now I have this mug that sells books."
And when it comes to women …
"That's a delicate question—does the face scare them?"
No, aren't there a lot of women who are attracted by it now?
"Yeah, I get all sorts of remarks about it. They say things like. 'You've got a face more beautiful than Christ's' That sounds good at first, but when I think about it, Christ's face wasn't all that beautiful. But I find women like ugly faces. Yeah. I'll make that statement flatly. They wanna mother ya back to heaven. I have no complaints."
A phone call interrupts us, and from the conversation I can tell it's Linda King. "No." he tells her, "I can't come over tonight. I'm being interviewed." Glancing at me, he raises his voice to make sure I can hear him. "Yeah, this guy's here from this wild-ass, perverted publication, but he looks pretty goddamn respectable to me: ten-dollar haircut, tailored clothes, Florsheim boots. What am I telling him? A lotta lies, what the hell else? I think he believes em, too."
After he gets off the phone I suggest to him that his writing recently seems to reflect a softening in his stance toward women and ask if that has something to do with his essentially happy, if rather rocky, relationship with Linda.
He rubs his rat-colored beard. "Well, I guess I might admit to mellowing a little. I've been accused of hating women but it's not true at all. It's just that most of the women I ran into for a long time weren't exactly prizes. I'd sleep with em and when I woke up, they'd be gone with my money. If a man goes into a whorehouse, he's gonna get a whore, that's all there is to it. I met Jane when I was in my 20's and she was the first woman—the first person, for that matter—who brought me any love. It was the first time I discovered the stupid little things that people do that make them care about each other, like lying in bed together on a Sunday morning reading the paper or fixing a meal together. Gentle, corny things like that."
In an attempt to bait him a bit, I recall some contradictory statements he's made in the past about women. Like, on one hand, "women are the world's most marvelous inventions." and, on the other. "I wouldn't recommend getting involved with women to any man."
"Right. Both statements are absolutely true. No contradiction. Next question." He grins and drains his beer, knowing the evasion has succeeded. Then he decides to go on anyway. "Let me tell ya a little story, kid. Before I met Linda I went four years without a woman and I felt pretty good about it. Somehow I just reached a stage where I didn't wanna go through the strain of a relationship. I didn't wanna take the time. Women can be awfully time-consuming. And when you're a poet, they expect ya to go around spouting all-this grand, glorious, profound stuff all the time about the meaning of life. Well, Jesus, I'm not like that. What can I tell em? I wanna fuck em, that's all. So after they're with ya four or five days and the most profound thing you've said is, 'Hey, baby, ya forgot to flush the toilet,' they think to themselves. 'What the hell kinda poet is this?' It takes a lot outta ya putting up with that stuff. During that four-year period I just decided not to join the chase for every cunt in a skirt. I'd come home from the job and I'd have the beer and my symphony music, a place to lay down and my typewriter. I masturbated a lot and got a lotta writing done, so I guess it turned out all right. Writing, after all, is more important than any woman. But I will make this concession: jerking off runs a distant second to the real thing. When you're with a woman ya like and the sex is good, there's something that takes place beyond the act itself. Some sort of exchange of souls that makes all the trouble worthwhile—at least for the rest of the night. I mean, here ya are, masturbating, whacking away at this big ugly purple thing with the veins sticking out and fantasizing about how you're balling the daylights outta some woman, and then ya finish and go lay down on the bed and think. 'Well, that wasn't too bad'—but something's missing. It's that exchange of souls."
It seems like an appropriate time to test out how seriously he takes the image of a great lover he has fostered in his stories. I inform him that Linda had volunteered the information that "he's a very creative lover. I've stayed with him five years, and if he wasn't good I could certainly find someone else."
"Well, I'll plead guilty to that," he says matter-of-factly. "I may as well admit it. I'm a good lover. At least I was the last time I did it, which wasn't long ago. But I think Linda's probably talking about sexual exploration, working down below there with the tongue and also getting in some creative movements ya haven't tried before. It's like writing a story or a poem—ya don't wanna do it the same way every time or it gets boring. It's hard to explain…. It's just an instinctive things to keep things fresh and exciting. Like maybe doing it standing up as a change of pace. I can do that with these goddamn legs of mine. Most of the rest of me is shit, but the legs are dynamite. And my balls. I have genuinely magnificent balls. No shit, if my dick was in direct proportion to my balls. I'd be one of the great all-time champion studs. But my balls aside, imagination is the key. It's a creative act."
Well, uh, Linda also said she had to teach you about oral sex.
Linda said you had never practiced, uh, cunnilingus before you met her.
"Ummmmmm. Christ, she couldn't let it go at telling ya I'm a great lover, could she?" His fugitive's face registers either a scowl or a smirk, hard to tell which. "All right, that's true. When I met her one of the first things she told me was that she could tell from my stories that I had never done that. Don't ask me how she figured that out. Anyway, she said it was a deficiency in my education. We set about to correct it and we did. I covered her with the reality of my tongue, how's that? Then she told me she was afraid that I'd hafta try out my new techniques on another woman. Well, she was right about that, too. One thing it proves, though, it's never too later for an old man to learn new tricks. Another bit of Bukowski wisdom."
… L.A., the greatest city in the universe. Where each man and woman had a special style and a natural cool. Even the fools had a certain grace. L.A. was the end of a dead culture crawled west to get away from itself. L.A. knew it was rotten and laughed at it. Ask Chicago, ask New York City, they still think they are alive. No good. They are fucked cuckoo. While San Francisco chokes upon the glut of artists, L.A. wheels, stands at the corner of Hollywood and Western, munching a taco and enjoying the bluff and the sun….
—"Notes of a Dirty Old Man"
The beer is gone and Bukowski is hungry. He stands up and asks a question that comes out more as an order: "How about getting something to eat? I haven't eaten since I started drinking beer and that was quite some time ago." A few minutes later, we're weaving along Western Avenue in his blue '67 VW ("I'm gonna drive this sonuvabitch till it disintegrates"), headed, he declares, for nothing less than a Pioneer Chicken stand. "Been going there for years when I'm drunk and there's no food in the apartment. Main thing is, I hafta watch out for those red lights in the rear-view mirror. I can't afford to get picked up … might lose my license. Suppose they pull me over? What am I gonna tell 'em, that I'm Charles Bukowski, one of the world's greatest poets? That I have magnificent balls? Ya think the men in blue would buy that?"
A car ahead of us that had stopped for a red light fails to move when the light turns green. Bukowski unleashes a torrent out the window. "Come on, motherfuck! Move it! Get your ass moving!" The driver looks around nervously and finally takes off. "Did ya see that asshole? I'll bet he's a tourist, probably from Chicago…. Yeah, I love this town. Well, I don't love, it, but it's the only place I ever wanna live. I couldn't write anywhere else. I hope I die here. Not right away, maybe when I'm 80. That seems like a reasonable age to die. That gives me another 25 years. I can write a lot of shit in 25 years. Hey, I feel good tonight. Tonight I feel like I might make it to 80. I have some trouble with the stomach, my liver gets overloaded and my hemorrhoids are threatening to take over the world, but what the hell. I'll make it. I'm just ornery enough to make it."
We reach Pioneer Chicken and order two shrimp dinners. Sitting at an outdoor table, eating the shrimp and soggy french fries, Bukowski turns reflective, talking without prompting about his past, speculating about the effects of his father's beatings, reminiscing about the days on the road. Drunk, tired and disheveled, he stares at a young couple walking by and then, in a confessional tone, he says: "Ya know, I've felt kinda unreal and weird all my life. I've always had trouble getting along with people. I've always been the sonuvabitch—the guy who says the wrong thing and makes people feel bad. Sometimes I feel like I'm not really a part of this world." A pause. "I say I don't like people, but really I get kinda charged up when I'm around 'em. I used to sit in my old apartment with the window open, typing and looking out at the sidewalk with people walking by. And I'd incorporate the people into my stuff. Maybe now that I've got a little success I can relax and say something nice to people once in a while instead of always being the prick." He stops, looks at me, starts to go on, then thinks better of it; perhaps he's thinking that he's already said too much. The moment of reflection passes. "Ah, hell, let's eat our shrimp and watch the broads go by."
We drive back and he parks on the street near his bungalow. Out on the sidewalk we shake hands. "Listen, kid," he says. "I don't have friends, but I do have acquaintances. So now you're an acquaintance."
"Bukowski," I say, "you're not a bad guy—for a prick."
He laughs, shakes his head and walks off toward his apartment and his solitude.
Flower, Fist, and Bestial Wail (poetry) 1959Run with the Hunted (poetry) 1962Poems and Drawings (poetry) 1962It Catches My Heart in Its Hands: New and Selected Poems, 1955–1963 (poetry) 1963Grasp the Walls (poetry) 1964Cold Dogs in the Courtyard (poetry) 1965Crucifix in a Deathhand: New Poems, 1963–1965 (poetry) 1965The Genius of the Crowd (poetry) 1966True Story (poetry) 1966On Going Out to Get the Mail (poetry) 1966To Kiss the Worms Goodnight (poetry) 1966The Girls (poetry) 1966The Flower Lover (poetry) 1966Night's Work (poetry) 19662 by Bukowski (poetry) 1967The Curtains Are Waving (poetry) 1967At Terror Street and Agony Way (poetry) 1968Poems Written before Jumping out of an 8-Story Window (poetry) 1968If We Take … (poetry) 1969The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses over the Hills (poetry) 1969Another Academy (poetry) 1970Fire Station (poetry) 1970Post Office (novel) 1971Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions, and General Tales of Ordinary Madness (short stories) 1972, abridged edition published as Life and Death in the Charity Ward, 1974Mockingbird, Wish Me Luck (poetry) 1972Me and Your Sometimes Love Poems (poetry) 1972Notes of a Dirty Old Man (short stories) 1973South of No North (short stories) 1973While the Music Played (poetry) 1973Love Poems to Marina (poetry) 1973Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame: Selected Poems, 1955–1973 (poetry) 1974Chilled Green (poetry) 1975Africa, Paris, Greece (poetry) 1975.Factotum (novel) 1975Weather Report (poetry) 1975Winter, No Mountain (poetry) 1975Tough Company, [bound with The Last Poem by Diane Wakoski] (poetry) 1975Scarlet (poetry) 1976Maybe Tomorrow (poetry) 1977Love Is a Dog from Hell: Poems, 1974–1977 (poetry) 1977Women (novel) 1978Legs, Hips, and Behind (poetry) 1979Play the Piano Drunk Like a Percussion Instrument until the Fingers Begin to Bleed a Bit (poetry) 1979A Love Poem (poetry) 1979Dangling in the Tournefortia (poetry) 1981Ham on Rye (novel) 1982Horsemeat (novel) 1982The Last Generation (poetry) 1982Hot Water Music (short stories) 1983Sparks (poetry) 1983The Bukowski/Purdy Letters: A Decade of Dialogue, 1964–1974 [with Al Purdy] (letters) 1983Barfly (novel) 1984There's No Business (short stories) 1984War All the Time: Poems, 1981–1984 (poetry) 1984The Movie: Barfly (screenplay) 1987The Roominghouse Madrigals: Early Selected Poems, 1946–1966 (poetry) 1988Hollywood (novel) 1989The Last Night of the Earth Poems (poetry) 1992Pulp (novel) 1994
SOURCE: A review of The Bukowski/Purdy Letters, in Canadian Materials for Schools and Libraries, Volume XII, No. 6, November 1984, pp. 253-54.
[In the following review, Kingstone questions the wisdom of publishing the correspondence of these two authors.]
The advantage of reading a writer's letters is that one sees, often quite easily, the shape of informal thought that is frequently more revealing than the author's published work. By reading diaries and letters written to close friends, private communication, we see a writer's life focused for us in sharper detail; at least, that is the idea. But I cannot help but think that the private world disclosed for this reader in The Bukowski/Purdy Letters 1964–1974 would have been better left to the world of private correspondence. The writing is undistinguished; and, while one marvels at the spontaneity and the evolution of a friendship, the exchange of letters more often than not celebrates drinking and womanizing. The rather immature boasting by each becomes tedious, and though it echoes Hemingway and Dylan Thomas, at least with them there were letters whose critical intelligence redeemed any masculine posturing. In Bukowski/Purdy, one has to look very hard indeed to discover any insights into the craft of writing. Scrape away the occasional inventive misspelling or pun, and the very occasional verbal facility (as in the description of a teacher as "an upright piece of chalk"), and one is left with much that is crude and embarrassing. Four-letter-word dismissals of writers substitutes for criticism in this unfortunate publication. It is really very unfortunate, because it could have been the kind of work—it is imaginatively and cleanly bound—to provoke casual readers to search out the poetry of these two men.
I suspect the blame for this effort should be laid at the feet of the editor, Seamus Cooney, who could not have been less sensitive in urging these two men to publish their letters. They could not have imagined their letters would have been published, ever, let alone while they were still alive. The publishing of literary correspondence has become very popular recently (note the publication of The Nabokov/Wilson Letters and several others in the last five years), but perhaps the market has reached its saturation point. We may have reached a stage now where certain individuals feel they can pass anything off to an uncritical public, and in this particular publication we have been conned, because in the growing field of published correspondence it is certainly an aberration.
Cherkovski, Neeli. Hank: The Life and Times of Charles Bukowski, New York: Random House, 1991, 337 pp.
Cherkovski is a widely published writer, critic, and editor. Drawing from numerous interviews with Bukowski and several of the author's friends, he provides a detailed portrait of the writer's life.
Cherkovski, Neeli. "Notes on a Dirty Old Man." Whitman's Wild Children. Venice, CA: The Lapis Press, 1988: 1-38.
In his chapter on Bukowski, Cherkovski combines anecdotes of meetings with the author and criticism of his work.
Harrison, Russell. Against the American Dream: Essays on Charles Bukowski. Santa Rosa, CA: Black Sparrow Press, 1994, 323 pp.
In the twelve chapters of his book, Harrison focuses in on various aspects of Bukowski's poetry and fiction.
Glover, David. "A Day at the Races: Gambling and Luck in Bukowski's Fiction." Review of Contemporary Fiction 5, No. 3 (Fall 1985): 32-33.
Glover examines Bukowski's use of luck as a counter-point to the implied fatalism of his writing.
Kessler, Stephen. "Notes on a Dirty Old Man." Review of Contemporary Fiction 5, No. 3 (Fall 1985): 60-63.
Kessler recounts his first personal encounter with Bukowski. He provides a view of the author that suggests that the compassionate, mellow person that many feel developed as the writer matured was under the gruff exterior all the time.
Madigan, Andrew J. "What Fame Is: Bukowski's Exploration of Self." Journal of American Studies Vol. 30, No. 3 (December 1996): 447-61.
Madigan explores the effect of fame on Bukowski by examining the author's treatment of the subject in his own writing.
Penn, Sean. "Tough Guys Write Poetry." Interview Magazine XVII, No. 9 (September 1987): 94, 96, 98.
The interview provides a first-person account of Bukowski's opinions on a wide variety of topics.
SOURCE: "Mirror of Ourselves: Notes on Bukowski's Post Office," in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 5, No. 3, Fall 1985, pp. 39-42.
[In the following favorable review, Glazier discusses the novel Post Office, in which he sees a cogent macrocosm of the human condition.]
When Post Office, Bukowski's first published novel, came off the press in 1971, an important moment in the history of modern American literature occurred. Bukowski stood like a giant, one foot astride each of two continents: poetry and prose; pornography and belles letters; suicide and sainthood; Europe and America; the underground press and the brackish water of the literati. A truly historic first novel, Post Office was as definitive as a line drawn in the dirt.
Bukowski had stepped forward from the maelstrom of prophetic vision, having established himself securely by such visionary poetic works as Flowers, Fist and Bestial Wail (1960), Crucifix in a Deathhand (1965), and the collection The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses over the Hills (1969). He was able to turn his hand to fiction with a perspective unequaled in contemporary American letters. He had been through a stripping-down that would've killed any ordinary person. And yet Bukowski, rather than being weakened by each successive defoliation, seemed to get stronger with the knowledge of what was necessary. He approached a level of immediate experience that was almost religious in nature. And when he came out of his motel room with the manuscript of Post Office, the essential worth of his novel was inescapable, built with a prose style that was sparse, honest, and brilliant in its Epicurean asceticism.
The setting for this visionary work is quite uncontrived. Unlike a generation of previous writers who drew their inspiration from Paris, Italy and the Riviera, Bukowski created his universe from the stuff at hand. Everything that was necessary could be found wherever he found himself: in a motel room in Los Angeles, in a cottage in Texas, sitting in his car, in the jaws of the post office. The post office represents dynamically the duality which is the relentless metronome of daily life. Here we have literacy and communication; letters are flashes of narrative whereby events are caught in brief written images sent from one person to another. Yet on the other hand, the post office is representative of another side of modern life: order, authority, bureaucracy, a methodical and corporate process of dehumanization where each person is supposed to feel enriched by the contribution he is making to the organization's goal. This point of view is established firmly before the start of the narrative in "Code of Ethics":
Postal employees have, over the years, established a fine tradition of faithful service to the Nation, unsurpassed by other groups. Each employee should take great pride in this tradition of dedicated service. Each of us must strive to make his contribution worthwhile in the continued movement of the Postal Service toward future progress in the public interest.
The assumptions underlying this code form the justification for the dissolution of individuality in society. Here is represented the kind of conditionality and blind obedience that makes the isolation and madness of modern life possible.
The lesson of Post Office lies in the cleaning up of this mess. The novel provides a clear guide to the necessary first step: realizing that there is nothing to understand. There is no reason for it. Those that reason are those that either contribute to the strata that distance us from humanity or that contribute equally to its power through their own act of retreating. The only way of beginning to understand our predicament is to understand that there is no asking why.
Bukowski opens Post Office with a single simple paragraph: "It began as a mistake." Henry Chinaski, Bukowski's alter ego, enters the post office quite by accident, hearing that they would hire anyone. He takes the exam and physical, and goes through the motions, finally becoming a temporary mail carrier. Life is a breeze—for the moment. The novel's action starts when he is transferred to Oakford Station and the tyrannical rule of a supervisor named Jonstone. Immediately Chinaski finds himself under the degradation of a normal, ordered world. And it's clear that this world—of bondage—was made possible only through one utterly ironic condition: man's acceptance of tyranny. "The subs themselves made Jonstone possible by obeying his impossible orders," Chinaski explains. He rebels immediately and is quashed. He persists in his rebellion and continues to be suppressed. And though at one point he is even a millionaire through marriage, the process of Post Office is one that continually strips Chinaski down; yet each time this occurs, he pulls himself up with purified vision.
Post Office presents man as a curiosity, blind to his responsibility for creating the process of dehumanization through his own submission to it. The inhabitants of Bukowski's universe are constantly under the thumb of this principle. They are people motivated by temper, attachment, people who are spiritually starved yet stuffed with illusions. Suffering by their own hands, these people question their lot. These are the people on Chinaski's route, caught in a self-consuming cycle between disappointment and anger. For example:
"… I know you have a letter for me!"
"What makes you say that?"
"Because my sister phoned and said she was going to write me."
"Lady, I don't have a letter for you."
"I know you have! I know you have! I know it's there!"
Or, more commonly:
I handed her mail to her.
"BILLS! BILLS! BILLS!" she screamed. "IS THAT ALL YOU CAN BRING ME? THESE BILLS?"
Bukowski's power of straightforward "seeing" is evidenced, in the face of this hysterical loss of human dignity, by his honest reply, "'Yes, mam, that's all I can bring you.'" Or, again, in a moment of quiet emptiness: 〈block〉
When Betty came back we didn't sing or laugh, or even argue. We sat drinking in the dark, smoking cigarettes, and when we went to sleep, I didn't put my feet on her body or she on mine like we used to. We slept without touching.
We had both been robbed.
These are people, like Chinaski's millionairess wife, Joyce, who have lost touch with what is real. Chinaski's value as antihero is his resiliency, his ascension from the "death" of blind obedience. He speaks no other language but the real. There is no swaying, no circumnavigating the issues. Bukowski is without sympathy in standing true to the world as it exists in front of him. We witness this when Chinaski, married to Joyce and living in Texas, experiences a rare mood of benevolence and leaves work early to do a little shopping. By the time Joyce gets home that evening, Chinaski has prepared a feast, including a plate of golden, fried-in-butter snails that repulse her immediately. Eventually, however, she tries one, then examines the others on her plate closely. Finally, she breaks:
"They all have tiny assholes! It's horrible! Horrible!"
"What's horrible about assholes, baby?"
She held a napkin to her mouth. Got up and ran to the bathroom. She began vomiting. I hollered in from the kitchen:
"WHAT'S WRONG WITH ASSHOLES, BABY? YOU'VE GOT AN ASSHOLE, I'VE GOT AN ASSHOLE! YOU GO TO THE STORE AND BUY A PORTERHOUSE STEAK, THAT HAD AN ASSHOLE! ASSHOLES COVER THE EARTH! IN A WAY TREES HAVE ASSHOLES BUT YOU CAN'T FIND THEM, THEY JUST DROP THEIR LEAVES. YOUR ASSHOLE, MY ASSHOLE, THE WORLD IS FULL OF BILLIONS OF ASSHOLES, THE PRESIDENT HAS AN ASSHOLE, THE CARWASH BOY HAS AN ASSHOLE, THE JUDGE AND THE MURDERER HAVE ASSHOLES."
The line that Bukowski draws in Post Office is one that encompasses an essential decision. Man stands at an important moment in world history and cannot seem to step forward out of sheer blindness to common, ordinary facts. Man can be seen in the birds that Bukowski sets free in Post Office, birds that Bukowski could no longer bear to see imprisoned. He takes the cage outside and opens the door, daring the birds to step across the line. There is a dramatic moment of hesitation while they deliberate about whether or not to go. The essential challenge of Post Office is before them. Their accountability for their own self-determination is placed squarely under their eyes. They fly off. When Joyce returns, she is beside herself:
"Do you mean to say you let those birds out of the cage? Do you mean to say you really let them out of the cage?"
"Well, all I can say is, they are not locked in the bathroom, they are not in the cupboard."
"They'll starve out there!"
"They can catch worms, eat berries, all that stuff."
"They can't, they can't. They don't know how! They'll die!"
"Let 'em learn or let 'em die."
Chinaski does not simply express this philosophy: his life embodies it. Taking your fate into your own hands, despite the outcome, initiates the process of restoring man's humanity.
The marriage to Joyce ends, just as do all of Chinaski's relationships in Post Office, just as Chinaski's association with the post office will. After a long grueling battle, there will have been enough. It will be time to look at life with clearer eyes. To make a simple statement. There is an almost mystical wisdom expressed each time Chinaski moves on.
She even helped me pack. Folding my pants neatly into suitcases. Packing in my shorts and razor. When I was ready to leave she started crying again. I bit her on the ear, the right one, then went down the stairway with my stuff. I got into the car and began cruising up and down the streets looking for a For Rent sign.
This scene, on its own, is compelling; yet the philosophical insight comes with Chinaski's observation of his own humanness. Stripped again of everything and looking for a place to live with no previous preparation, he comments, "It didn't seem to be an unusual thing to do." Chinaski survives because he keeps his eyes on the road and refuses to wallow in any kind of self-pitying analysis.
Post Office sums up the entire human dilemma in a few simple choruses. The proof of the truth of Bukowski's vision lies in the continued popularity of Post Office and all of Bukowski's work, both here and abroad. There is a delicate balance that must be evaluated—between what we endure and what little ground we need to claim for ourselves. Without complex theories or expressions of insurmountable entanglements, Bukowski provides a clean and simple answer in a clear and direct style: the answer is right here. It's as easy as looking in the mirror.
SOURCE: "Charles Bukowski and the Avante-Garde," in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 5, No. 3, Fall 1985, pp. 56-59.
[In the following review, 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 utterly distinctive writing—allusive, anarchic and miraculously entertaining.
I take Bukowski's most intense and hilarious prose to be Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions and General Tales of Ordinary Madness (1972) and the collection Notes of a Dirty Old Man (1969). So, I shall refer to these in discussing his fictional tactics, brilliant effects, and peculiar linguistic stew.
In common with many other writers (Ginsberg, Burroughs, Snyder), Bukowski published in underground newspapers of the 1960's and 1970's; he became a prolific contributor to his local papers, Open City and L.A. Free Press, and his fiction took its place alongside coverage of student unrest, the New Left, black power, civic and police corruption, the draft resistance, drug information, and adverts for sexual contacts and services.
Exploiting this popular platform for his writing, Bukowski's uninhibited mixture of fiction and opinion is almost impossible to read without explosive laughter on virtually every page. This is partly the result of subject matter in Notes: a winged baseball hero brought down to earth by women and drink; sex with a three-hundred-pound whore; the last days of Neal Cassady; boxing and racing; revolution and literature; a man who wakes to find his skin turned gold with green polka dots (recalling Kafka's Metamorphosis); drunkenly mistaken anal intercourse; demonology; and a grossly superb cast list of comically inept muggers, murderers, gangsters, misogynists, bums and whores, rapacious land-ladies, struggling writers, misunderstood geniuses, day laborers, perverts and other social oddballs.
This satiric critique of capitalism, bourgeois morality and conventional culture is accompanied by a deliberately disorderly syntax, a "spontaneous" typewriterese that creates its effect by a radical difference from smoother, more literary writing: "… balls, yes, I almost cried, but then orientated by centuries, Christ's fuck-up, every sad and ripping thing, stupid, I leaped up and checked my only unripped pants not yet ripped from falling down at the knees while drunk."
The tools in his craftsman's bag are used to create an impression of artless spontaneity. How is this textual illusion obtained? By the use of the first-person singular; a vigorous street language with no recourse to dictionaries, complex words or intellectual concepts; by the use of first names or real names as though the reader were an acquaintance; by the cultivation of a no-bullshit approach, as though the speaker were too busy telling the truth to dilute it with high cultural values; and most effectively by jokes and asides to the reader: "(by the way … I realize I switch from present to past tense, and if you don't like it … ram a nipple up your scrotum—printer: leave this in)."
Bukowski flavors the lexical stew of Notes with misspellings, ungrammatical constructions, sentences with no verbs, repetitions, split infinitives, much slang and swearing, sexual innuendo and other linguistic ambiguities that enable him to splice sexuality, violence, nastiness and humor. By deliberately leaving in the text the sort of grammatical confusions common in speech but usually suppressed in written English, Bukowski is indicating that he wants to align writing with spoken rather than written conventions. The typing error is evidence of oral authenticity: "She thought my poems were the greatest thing since Black, no I mean Blake—and some of them are."
Surface indications to the contrary, Bukowski's fiction addresses itself to literate readers capable of appreciating the enormous number of irreverent references to writers, composers, painters and philosophers, and its slangy departures from polite literary expression. Which is why his writing goes down so well with university audiences, even though his humor subverts their educational values.
From John Fante, Bukowski took the idea that the streets of Los Angeles (not Hollywood) represented a viable fictional world; from Celine, an attitude of misanthropic extremism. But Ernest Hemingway, the most accessible modernist, provided Bukowski with a macho role model, an existential material, and an experimental style already pushed in the direction of American "speech." The aficionado of the L.A. Public Library pushed the stripped-down, denotative (classic) style of Hemingway into play, parody, and laughter. Bukowski echoed the aesthetics of the prose technician; either could have written this: "The hard life created the hard line and by the hard line I mean the true line devoid of ornament" (Bukowski, "He Beats His Women").
Hemingway (perhaps one should say Hamingway) stressed simplicity of expression and small, "honest" words (instead of abstractions) and action to keep the existential void at bay. As Hugh Kenner says, Hemingway's "bullfights and lion hunts were aesthetic gestures"; the Bukowski hero parallels this by going to the racetrack. This allows for a flippant treatment of existential states—exaltation and despair, hysteria and boredom. Hemingway's regard for the authenticity of words and feelings seeps through onto the Bukowski page. But Bukowski's humor makes the page more divided, fecund, ambiguous, and harder to pin down ideologically than other writers (say, Mailer) who recycle Hemingway's male mythology. How is one to read this faintly comic Hemingway echo? "I dropped my pants and shorts. She looked allright. I put the thing in. I put in what I had."
The function of his humor is sometimes to subvert cant, whole attitudes (e.g., sexism) that his stories, on another level, exploit. Sexual stereotypes—women as "all ass and breast," rapacious and available, a poor companion for the male compared to barroom buddies—hold sway throughout American fiction. At his best, Bukowski animates his stereotypes with great panache, investing "ideological unsoundness" with a liberating humor. A remarkable cultural allusiveness sends up machismo as well as alluding to and invoking it: "'Let's go out there and tell them to jam that horn up their ass,' said the kid, influenced by the Bukowski myth (I am really a coward) and the Hemingway thing and Humphrey B. and Eliot with his panties rolled, well. I puffed on my cigar. the horn went on."
Several Bukowski stories include fantasy dialogue with Hemingway's shade: "The Killers" parallels Hemingway's story of the same name; the opening of "Stop Staring at My Tits, Mister" parodies Hemingway in a crudely sexist mood; a rat-bearded professor bears a distinct resemblance in "Would You Suggest Writing As a Career?"; as a coup de grace, Henry Chinaski knocks out the aging Papa in "Class" ("You met a pretty good man, Mr. Hemingway").
The Hemingway legacy survives most vitally in the creation of a persona sometimes called "Bukowski" or "Henry Chinaski," what Barthes calls "a paper-author: his life is no longer the origin of his fictions but a fiction contributing to his work." Bukowski's artifice disguised as autobiography enables "Too Sensitive" to double-bluff the reader by ending on this note: "Meanwhile, I write about myself and drink too much. but you know that."
The intrusions of the author/narrator into the text are integral to many Bukowski stories, not merely winking to the reader but pointing up the text's artificial, fictive status. A playfulness clearly places Bukowski in the same camp as the postmoderns: "So, reader, let's forget Mad Jimmy for a minute and get into Arthur—which is no big problem—what I mean is also the way I write: I can jump around and you can come right along it won't matter a bit, you'll see."
Surrealism and existentialism enjoyed a delayed vogue in the American avant-garde of the 1950's and 1960's (Beat writers revived Artaud and Céline as major influences; The City Lights Journal made available the work of Michaux, Prévert, Genet, Artaud). While a rhythmic, semi-surreal language is sometimes evident, employing an illogical, dreamlike syntax ("but death was really boredom, death was really boredom, and even the tigers and ants would never know how and the peach would someday scream"), surrealism and existentialism's influence on Bukowski's fiction is most productive when reinvented, transmuted.
"The Gut-Wrenching Machine" is a comic commentary on authenticity, a concept crucial in existentialism's mythology. Criminals and tyrants supposedly live more authentically (that is, unhampered by moral codes, external authorities) than the solid, law-abiding citizen. Danforth and Bagley operate a wringer, turning out sufficiently pliable human material by squeezing the guts out, fitting their clients for "normal" life, the materialism of bourgeois society: "The ones labeled 'married with family' or 'over 40' lost their guts easiest."
Surrealism survives in Bukowski's bizarre characterization, the incorporation of fantastic events into a matter-of-fact narrative ("The Fuck Machine," "Six Inches"), always accompanied by quick-fire dialogue, endless one-liners, and a surrealism of the everyday; characters take onanistic photographs, fuck the phone, and fold complaining women into walls. Sexual explicitness is constantly undermined by grotesque details. With unexpected language reversals, deliberate anticlimaxes, and punchlines, Bukowski's stories point up their essential hero—the irreverent writer struggling with both the world and the word.
Self-referential stories about: being a writer on the reading circuit ("Would You Suggest Writing As a Career?"); a writer afflicted by minor fame ("Great Poets Die in Steaming Pots of Shit"); a writer continually interrupted in his attempts to complete a luridly improbable story ("Twelve Flying Monkeys Who Won't Copulate Properly"). Frustrated by two strangers pissing on his porch, Crazy Jack and two friends, a phone conversation with a maudlin poet, then by strangers offering a boat trip, the vomiting writer concludes: "We head out to sea where Conrad made it. To hell with Conrad. I'll take coke with bourbon in a dark bedroom in Hollywood in 1970, or whatever year you read this. The year of the monkey-orgy that never happened. The motor flits and gnashes at the sea; we plunge on toward Ireland. No, it's the Pacific. We plunge on toward Japan. To hell with it."
The frisson provided by cultural reference and tough-guy language is typically irreverent, disruptive, avant-garde; for Bukowski, the pleasure of the text is always laughter.
SOURCE: "Bukowski's Hollywood," in ENclitic, Vol. 11, No. 3, Summer 1985, pp. 89-93.
[In the following essay, Theis explores the connections between Bukowski's novel, Hollywood, his screenplay for the movie Barfly, and the author's life.]
Even for the artist or writer who silently screams refusals to be caught, coopted, by the lures of commercial culture, the dreams of monetary success are hard to fight off. The big bucks for landing a script at a more upscale studio privy to the points where culture and cash separate and merge together, or for a book contract at one of the major publishing houses, have the power to give artists and writers a dose of schizophrenia. Ego and lust tempered by the gnawing desire for creature comforts batters the artistic temperament with a reckoning force, especially in Hollywood town where movies are the art form, where art and cash might be more incestuously connected. And this might be changing the status of the struggling culture-producer who batters away on the fringe of substantial reward in pursuit of lofty goals and untainted absolutes. With such dismal prospects for survival in a time when Gentry and working class heroes look at each other across a wider rift than ever (the lofty can't be sketched out in downtown LA lofts affordable now only by the upwardly mobile brokers of this and that commodity), the notion of the struggling artist may becoming a vanishing species in the old sense we've come to attach to it.
This paradox is what mainly propels Bukowski's latest book, Hollywood. The contradictions of a life style overtaken with the pursuit of success on terms not always of one's own making: this is the major concern throughout. As a successful writer of the type chronicled in these pages, is he obsessed with going back to the days of struggle because that was when the experience of being a writer was more "real," naively oblivious to the system of exchange values that engulf the lives of all writers, something that seemed so abstractly removed? Do the lures of fame mitigate against true success? Bukowski has been heaped with it in the past few years to the point of warding off all publicity comers. Can good writing/art be produced under conditions of sated security? Isn't this why the scripting arts of the film world won't allow the entry of the controversial and subversive, that by the time a subject gets framed by the studios, it ceases to be one? Or is this just a romantic illusion, sentiments expressed by outsiders who couldn't make the grade, survive in the jungle where markets are always the best arbiter of quality?
There is some Romanticism in Bukowski's book, but we can't mistake most of what he's doing for a serious investigation of the life of the writer (his in fact, the book's a biographical statement) in a cultural wasteland that demanded his devotion for too many years of his life. His scenario appears to be an attempt to make sense of the road he passed along to get where he is now. His main character, Henry Chinaski, is roughly the same age as Bukowski, and surely harbors similar anxieties about the occupation of writer in the land of celluloid. Chinaski is all too aware of his place in life, at age 65. He feels pressured into becoming that other kind of writer/artist, the one with a desk, agent, assignment, front money: "My fighting days were over. To think I had once weighed 144 pounds on a 6-foot frame: the grand old starving days when I was writing the good stuff." The "good stuff" is created under conditions of maximum deprivation and adversity, the less-than-good produced on the downside of recognition, when mature complacency has fought off any urge to experiment? This sort of evolution doesn't apply to Bukowski's output, but perhaps his earlier writing has the stamp of the vintage angriness we now slot him into (like we do with the raging Burroughs and Ferlinghetti during their heydays).
We already know Chinaski as Bukowski's protagonist through several novels and the film Barfly. Chinaski's struggles have occupied Bukowski for quite some time in working out his designs. He has been the gladiator-man-in-the-street, raging, not so much out of excess emotion, as sheer doggedness grounded in hard-hitting speculation (like his many systems for playing the horses channeled into one simple premise: "… there is only one bet, and that is bet it to win; not to place or show.") He's self-absorbed in his very resistance to floating along with the norm. He possesses a praiseworthy stubbornness that often fuels the most insightful intellectual fervor, romantic or otherwise. In Ham on Rye ('82), about Chinaski's youth, he lays it out:
"I could see the road ahead of me. I was poor and I was going to stay poor. But I didn't particularly want money. I didn't know what I wanted. Yes, I did. I wanted someplace to hide out, someplace where one didn't have to do anything. The thought of being something didn't only appall me, it sickened me. The thought of being a lawyer or a councilman or an engineer, anything like that, seemed impossible to me. To get married, to have children, to get trapped in the family structure. To go someplace to work every day and to return. It was impossible. To do things, simple things, to be part of family picnics, Christmas, the 4th of July, Labor Day, Mother's Day … was a man born just to endure those things and then die? I would rather be a dishwasher, return alone to a tiny room and drink myself to sleep."
Bukowski's vision of the right stuff (then at least, early in the maturing writerly ego) couldn't be further from what we imagine to be the filmmaking world's version of floating along with the norm. Romantic visionaries who cling nostalgically to an existence of enforced deprivation, of self-fulfillment through lack, of living on the seedy margins where pain and adversity catalyze the persistent flow of creative life, aren't easily tamed into Hollywood industrial slots. These diehards hang out at Al's Bar in downtown LA (at least the vintage version back in the days when Bukowski himself straddled the makeshift bar as a culture fly seeding his reputation as an anti-hero), nurturing energies for use in an appropriate moment of escape. The rest seek out the avenues of successful script placement at City Cafe (and its many pastiches throughout LA), averse to the dirt and din of seedy life that violates the respectability of the entertainment arts.
But Bukowski's Hollywood is also a sophisticated take on all this. That is, the novel is really about the making of the film Barfly ('87), a movie that perhaps can be seen as his answer, through the art of film, to questions plaguing him for so long. This may explain why, in certain ways, it doesn't really come off as a novel. It seems at times like notes toward the writing of a script, a kind of script, however, that doesn't jive with the Hollywood product. The force, of the book is not so much in a story line that pulls or drags the reader along (like a Hollywood narrative?), as it is in sheer emotional overkill nearly dumbfounding because of the accessibility of the prose. The words are sort of doled out, flowing like the conversation between pulls on a bottle of red passed around without glasses in an alley behind the local drugstore. The reader feels the back and darkside of Hollywood, the part we know is there but can never really intuit through the mask of glamor. The several cancellations of the film in progress, and bilking of the cast and crew by the producers, sheds some light on what goes on beneath the glitz, the behind-the-scenes give and take, that tells us what we already know but in a way that suggests we really might not.
Hollywood is a book about the making of a film which brings to bear all the ambivalences a creative person might have in negotiating for a slice of security in an alien culture. It's hardly a predictable genre. It is too reflective of itself, too multi-layered to fall into generic slots. The all-too-predictable slotting into the Hollywood machine is the occasion for most of the drama, but Chinaski's relationship to the world of filmmaking, the grit of the novel, stages a bit more than this. Chinaski has mostly disdain for the film scene, but perhaps like the author himself, immersion in the celluloid arts may indeed be another stage in the evolution of a career, a necessity which every aspiring creative person in the shadows of the studios must accept as fact. Perhaps Chinaski truly wants to invigorate the scene, change it in some way, with his ideas cultivated on the fringes, in adversity and deprivation. Because he is clearly not what they are. He's formula breaker, a category dissolver, everything we would expect to find in the makeup of the raging writer who might experiment from time to time with other life styles and media. So a big part of the work is Chinaski breaking barriers: from writing to film, from moderate to upper class living, toward drinking less and eating some "health foods." (For example, after the first day of filming, "having seen the movie made that afternoon we were now somehow different, we would never think or talk quite the same. We now knew something more but what it was seemed very vague and even perhaps a bit disagreeable.")
Chinaski is rooted in suspicion, of a type not usually found among the sort who automatically apply the precepts of good Hollywood filmmaking. He's, not quite sure what to make of the bogus glamor and parade of false artists he comes into contact with because, for one thing, they are survivors like himself, and therefore can't be so easily and totally written off to oblivion. He finds a particular type of representative from this world, the kind who are surely not the pure machine-honed cipher, but carry a certain symptomatic disdain with them into the filmmaking trenches (and who are also victims of crossing boundaries). An identification with these types might maintain Chinaski's sanity. They, like him, are hooked on the film world, and not all that sure why. From actors to extras, financiers, producers, directors, writers, the book is a cavalcade of idiosyncracy, what we expect in Bukowski's world. One character after another sort of sneaks up on the reader and at times almost makes the drinking, brawling Chinaski look like an oasis of sanity. Francois Racine, friend and sometimes roommate of director Jon Pinchot, is "a great actor but now and then he goes crazy. He'll just forget the script and the scene he's supposed to be doing and do his thing. It's a sickness, I think. He must have done it again. He got canned." This type seems like a clone of the rebel on the outs with studios in a never ending battle for independence of vision, the likes of Dennis Hopper or Orson Welles, perhaps, the only sort we can imagine Bukowski identifying with, or even consorting with, in his flirtation with Hollywood.
Racine's firing brings him back from France and soon he and Pinchot have taken residence in, where else, the Venice ghetto, the same environs that captured Hopper's imagination. They easily acclimate to the Venetian vibes and pander their newly acquired vision of a transition life style, keeping chickens so that they can save their money for wine and cigars. They fend off young black boys from the spoils of the family business in gestures of survival burlesqued in a fashion that only Bukowski can pull off:
The chickens! HEGGS! All the time we eat HEGGS! Nothing but HEGGS! Poop, poop, poop! The chickens poop HEGGS! All day, all night long my job is to save the chickens from the young black boys! All the time the young black boys climb the fence and run at the chicken coop! I hit them with a long stick, I say, 'You muthafuckas you stay away from my chickens which poop the HEGGS!' I cannot think of my own life or my own death, I am always chasing these young black boys with the long stick! Jon, I need more wine, another cigar!
He spends the remainder of his time practicing gambling on a little electric roulette wheel.
Harry Friedman is another one of these transitional figures (anti-heroes?) peopling Chinaski's universe. He's a ruthless authority figure and somewhat familiar character in the Bukowski lexicon (conjuring "the Stone," supervisor Johnstone in Post Office ('71), who put the cocky Chinaski through postal hell and, like a drill sergeant, tried to break him). He's an immanent god-like figure who supervises all the wrangling desires the rest of us submit to again and again, but who seems to harbor some conflicting impulses to the point of demonstrating a disdain for what he represents. Is this a caricature of Hollywood power moguls, or the discovery of Dostoyevskyian energies derivative from the monied film scene yet blindly and obsessively devoted to its destruction? These kinds of formations are not all that alien to Bukowski's world. Friedman and Nate Fischman are the executive producers of Firepower Productions. They're new in Hollywood, outcasts in a certain sense yet penultimate members of the Club. Nobody knows quite what to make of them. They used to make exploitation films in Europe. They arrived in America almost overnight and began making scores of movies. They are hated by everyone, but they are dealers, capable of delivering product with maximum efficiency, conjuring Don De Lillo's host of caricatures who operate in seedy realms of dollar deification. Bukowski describes Friedman making an entrance at his own birthday party: "Here he came in an old suit, no necktie, top button missing from his shirt and the shirt was wrinkled. Friedman had his mind on other things besides dress. But he had a fascinating smile and his eyes looked right at people as if he were x-raying them. He had come from hell and he was still in hell and he'd put you in hell too if you gave him the slightest chance. He went from table to table, dropping small and precise sentences."
References to Friedman punctuate the novel, hearken back to the struggle of Chinaski's earlier days when he was always up against the pricks and assholes—bosses—having it in for him. Chinaski is racked by the ups and downs of film production, and all the whipping boys who put it to him over and over again. Chinaski is apprehensive about participating in a competitive (ersatzly so: ideas squelched by marketing savvy), boorish process that most often produces bad films. (One gets the feeling that had the film failed it may have been a relief for Bukowski, who then would still be able to foist a warrior Chinaski on us for a good example, a raging bohemian always trying to beat insurmountable odds)
So Bukowski's foray through tinsel town doesn't produce the easy results we might expect. In a certain sense he sets a trap for the reader. Early on we are on the lookout for some scapegoat, someone who can be blamed for sustaining a world which so magically trades off quality and dealing. We never really find one, and perhaps we never really find the hero-god either. We get a slew of characters whose motives never seem to be either as jaded or as revelatory as one might expect. Chinaski is always at odds with the powers of the film scene, implicitly expressing his superiority over what they claim to represent, but at times comes off as a convert to it, one who after all is just like the rest, who wants a successful premiere to bank on. At one point he tells Pinchot that he wants a "white stretch limo with a chauffeur, a stock of the best wine, color tv, car phone, cigars…." There's a certain sinking feeling here that lingers until the "bullshit" is over; then it's back to a Bukowski-land more familiar to his readers, one where the good and bad guys are at least somewhat recognizable.
So much of the novel ponders the status of Bukowski's readers, his fans, as if he might be trying to work out his own ambivalent relation to the film world. There are only a few moments where the film world is treated sympathetically, and we sense a great deal of worry about how his viewers/readers perceive him. Once he and his wife Sarah hustle out of a bar full of leather jackets when he is recognized and greeted lynchmob style: "… I can kick your ass,… can you still get it up?… can I read you one of my poems?… come on stay and drink with us! Be a good guy! Be like your writing, Chinaski! Don't be a prick!" A fellow has mailed an example of his poetry with the cover letter: "… Piss on you! You were once a great writer! Now you suck! You've sold out! My grandmother writes better shit than you do!… You gobble your own weenie under sky of vomit!" He receives such dispatches three or four times a month. Chinaski admits that he has a love-hate relationship with his audience.
This is so, perhaps, because he embodies, in so many ways, the true working class hero who aspired to get beyond repressive circumstances but found little to attract him in the world of tinsel. Caught between nostalgia for a vitality of lumpen life that hardly existed, and longing for the successful completion of the next stage of self-realization, he somehow wavers in a sea of bitterness, apologizing, lashing out, and oftentimes just self-destructing. There's a lot in Chinaski—and Bukowski—to identify with for many. Even the well-to-do, feeling disdain for dumb complacency, the stupid crowd, fatigue with the events of a day, can easily muster an anti-social arrogance and identify with Chinaski as he tells the world to fuck off. But maybe as he becomes too many things for too many different people, his identity is polished over with enigmatic imagery, inviting aggressive misunderstandings. Only a star in the contradictory limelight can know and explain what this is like. And each discovery of misunderstanding, excessive praise and hyperemotional attachment may force another fade into silence and obscurity to ponder one's true value. Chinaski, the man who has fought and resisted all his life, submits a silent message to be read in his absence: "Every time somebody spoke to me I felt like diving out a window or taking the elevator down. People just weren't interesting. Maybe they weren't supposed to be. But animals, birds, even, insects were. I couldn't understand it … I'm not happy around people and after I drink enough they seem to vanish."
Chinaski did nearly die of a hemorrhage in his early thirties from the effects of alcohol abuse, and was advised to start playing the horses instead of drinking himself to death. He was told by doctors that if he took another drink he'd soon die. He began to go to the track on a daily basis, "then, slowly, I began to drink a little again. Then I drank more. And I didn't die." Self-obsessed, detesting the culture that throws up artificial barriers and interactions between him and the outside world, does he play around with the dangerous edge in isolation, fulfilling the mandate of a working class hero who might have just won the lottery? In 1985, roughly the same time as when Barfly was being written, Bukowski told the Saturday Review: "I drink wine as I write (usually a good California wine, perhaps Gamay Beaujolais). I don't know if I write when I drink, or drink when I write … My routine is: at about 10 p.m., three or four nights a week, I'll open a bottle of wine and turn on the radio to classical music, and I type until two or three in the morning."
Bukowski has cultivated an image (reinforced by a media that makes sure the public won't forget the trail of alluring qualities attached to his person over the years), that can't be sullied by Hollywood or Bohemia. He's in his own camp. Witness his perennial obstinate refusal to be caught by any category or person intruding into his inviolate space, a well-deserved creation that sanctions the nature of his life-long struggle. Secure in this space of his own making, he directs his own movie, and responds to the media and public in ways we would expect from an author above the fray. There's been little need to say much, beyond the obvious and self-evident, about those works created through adversity, a life of drinking and brawling that becomes more or less imprinted on the page as fiction. Hollywood and Barfly, according to Bukowski, told it like it was and is, narrated a period of his life that until that time hadn't been written about much. It was the aesthetics of the drinking scenes in Barfly that he really appreciated, and there seems to be more than a little pride in having become the best alcoholic possible while still preserving his ability to write effectively. He has no regrets about any of it. In fact, he relishes the possibility of being part of the lineage of the best writer-drinkers: O'Neill, Faulkner, Hemingway, London and others. Bukowski knows the strange and desperate lives drunks live better than most. And for him, as for Chinaski, the booze can only free up the typewriter keys for better service.
SOURCE: A review of Hollywood, in Small Press, Vol. 8, No. 1, p. 36.
[In the review below, Funari provides a brief plot summary of the novel Hollywood.]
The movie-making machinations of the title town are exposed in this thinly veiled roman à clef about a hard-drinking poet-novelist turned screenwriter. Presumably based on his experiences writing the movie, Barfly, Bukowski lays open the absurdity and egotism of the film industry from the worm's-eye view of a screenwriter.
Harry Chinanski has been asked by Jon Pinchot, a French director, to write a screenplay. Pinchot doesn't seem to care what the story is about. Neither does Chinanski; he's more concerned about where his next drink is coming from, and when. Sarah, his wife, is amenable to all this, matching her husband drink for drink and concerned only about getting home in time to feed their five cats. The couple takes a precarious journey through the land of corrupt backers and bizarre creative types where the writer "was where he belonged, in some dark corner, watching."
This novel is funny, and it moves quickly. When Chinanski isn't being updated on the movie's progress, he's playing the ponies. Alcohol and its accoutrements have as large a part as any of the characters. Nestled between the progress reports are anecdotes from Chinanski's past which are now enacted in "The Dance of Jim Beam," in part by an actress who insists he write a scene that will showcase her legs. If nothing else, the experience spawned a novel.
SOURCE: "Cries of pain from a man of letters," in Chicago Tribune Books, January 30, 1994, p. 7.
[In the following review, Dretzka reviews the collection of Bukowski's letters: Screams from the Balcony.]
Hearse, Gallows, Eros, Scimitar and Song, Harlequin, Coffin, Outsider, Black Cat Review, Wormwood Review, Windfall Press, Ole, Evidence, Choice, Mimeo Press, Klacto, Intrepid, Open City … Black Sparrow.
Such were the names of the little magazines, chapbooks, literary pamphlets and broadsheets that flourished in a purely non-financial sense of the word in the 1960's, before Xerox machines and desktop computers would revolutionize the way writers placed their words in front of hungry readers.
The titles roll off the tongue like poetry itself and represent, at least for Charles Bukowski—America's grand old man of letters—a neat encapsulation of his struggle to be regularly published between 1958 and 1970, the period covered in this collection of letters. Letters?… Cries of pain would be more like it.
The span takes us from Hearse—one of the little magazines that first printed Bukowski's poems after his 10-year break from writing—to Black Sparrow, which continues to produce lovely books from its Santa Rosa, Calif, base. It also matches the Los Angeles barfly's abject search for recognition, from actually paying to have poems reproduced, or selling them for the price of a six-pack, to becoming a columnist in L.A.'s Open City underground newspaper and finally leaving the post office to pursue a literary career at age 50.
These 350-plus pages of letters—a fraction of his actual output—tell the story of that challenge, much in the same way that Bukowski's inter novels would describe the life of Chinaski, his dirty-old-man alter ego. Full of cranky opinions, critiques and misanthropic observations, they were written to other scribes and editors who either share his dark visions or are actively working to make him a star. That many are penned under the influence, from some flophouse or lonely kitchen table, should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Bukowski's work.
Imagine something like this brightening your mailbox: "… the alka seltzer's sparkling and down it goes, depressed fit of cut cat running by without a tail where it had a tail before, or my head is strung around a savage day. All that crap. Anyhow, I have been drinking too much, and on top of that—another kind of mess, and the time has gone by and I haven't done anything, I am ashamed, I am lazy, I am stupid, I am King Kong bending over for a button, I am a torn picture postcard of East Bermuda."
Bukowski writes, seemingly incessantly, as if it might help him think, or feed "the impulse to write poems," according to editor Seamus Cooney. How prolific: 10-, 12-page tomes, day after day, to a dozen or so people, commenting on everything from how the horses are running to the relative merits of the day's poets, celebrated and obscure. Some of those targeted in published critiques would take offense at the candor of this largely unknown writer.
"I began (to write) at 35," he replies. "but I knew whether I liked a poem or not and why, and men don't write with their reputations; they write, most of them, with typewriters, each time you sit down reputation is gone with yesterday's sun; every man begins even again, right now, I am very glad I do not have a hotshot reputation—it keeps me clear with myself."
Mostly, though, he writes about Buk, himself, and his personal struggles with the ladies, his editors, foremen, whiskey, bad teeth and hemorrhoids. He does this not to avoid writing poems, but in addition to turning them out, mailing them off and hoping the rejected ones are returned, since he never kept carbons.
"I think the letter is an important form. You can touch about everything as you run around. It lets you out of the straight-jacket of pure Art, and you've got to get out once in a while. Of course, I don't restrict myself as much in the poem as most do, but I have made this my business, this freedom with the word and idea, because … to be perfectly corny … I know I'll only be around once and I want to make it easy on myself."
Nothing elegant here, but the words reveal the life inside this one man's work, and the struggle to get other people to listen to his often discordant sounds and perhaps' dip into his skid-row milieu for a while. There isn't much irony or symbolic swordsmanship; Bukowski's view is much like that of a video camera—somewhat grainy and distorted, but full of movement and studied, self-deprecating humor.
Here, circa 1967: "I've kind of dropped out of the letter-writing phrase (sic) in order to batch up enough glue to hold myself together a bit longer, the letter-writing thing can become a trap—I started by writing one or 2, then it got to three or four, then it got to 13 or 14, and all I was doing was writing letters. now, if this were my prime purpose, fine enough, but there are other things to do along the way too like … inking out a sketch or catching few winners at the track, or just staring at the walls, wondering about toes and your waste, and what the game was about, there are times TIMES TO DO NOTHING, very important times, hard to get between women and jobs and sickness and and and … so the writing of too many letters to too many people can get like carrying 50 pound rocks back and forth during your few moments of leisure, but people will … think you're up light or writing President Johnson or essays for the Atlantic. me, I'm hanging onto the slippery walls."
Cooney, of Western Michigan University, did a nice job editing these often-difficult epistles (examples of the actual letters, complete with sketches and smears are included) from their much longer and messier original forms, while maintaining all their flavor and character. If you're a fan, this is a must acquisition.
My hope—beyond that president Clinton will name Bukowski Poet Laureate some April 1—is that young people, especially those attracted to the zines and poetry slams, will stumble upon this book and realize what a pure joy it is to write and receive letters as full of life and raw humanity as this. Yes, I know this is the digital age and we can call each other or correspond via something called E-mail, but many of us are old enough to remember when it was the postman who delivered the treasures of our day, and words filled the sails of our imagination.
SOURCE: "Death Comes for the Detective," in The New York Times Book Review, June 5, 1994, pp. 49-50.
[In the following review, Stade provides a plot summary of Bukowski's last novel, Pulp.]
Charles Bukowski, ur-beatnik and author of more than 40 volumes of countercultural prose and verse, finished Pulp shortly before he died of leukemia at the age of 73 in March. Pulp is a spoof of the hard-boiled detective novel, especially as perpetrated by Mickey Spillane. It does not, of course, take much to send up the hard-boiled detective novel—all you have to do is write one. The conventions by now seem to mock themselves, if you stand back a bit. But Pulp does more than stand back from itself.
Bukowski's hard-boiled dick is one Nick Belane, although he sometimes wonders, apropos of nothing, whether he isn't really Harry Martel, whoever he is. Business is slow, but Belane occupies himself by catching flies and drinking from the bottle he keeps in his desk, a bottle of sake. On the job he will make do with Scotch or vodka with beer chasers. ("Nice thing about being a drunk, though, you were never constipated.") He also keeps in his desk a gun, variously described as a Luger, a .45, a .32—something worth getting straight, you would think. On the wall of his office is a "fake Dali," the melting watch.
Belane rolls his own cigarettes when not smoking cigars, wears a derby, drives a Volkswagen bug, plays the horses, (disastrously), hums bits from Carmen, regularly humbles 300-pound tough guys and regards women with the usual mixture of misogyny and lust. ("I was always a leg man. It was the first thing I saw when I was born.") And he regards himself with the classic mixture of covert narcissism and self-pity: ("My eyes were blue and my shoes were old and nobody loved me.") Nick Belane is no intellectual, he has just failed the written part of the test for a driver's license. On the whole, the fee he charges his clients, $6 an hour, seems about right.
Apropos of nothing, business suddenly picks up. Lady Death arrives at Belane's office, a lady always "dressed to kill." She wants him to discover whether a certain Celine, who hangs around bookstores checking out the competition apparently, is the Celine, "France's greatest writer," who would now be a century old, way overdue for Lady Death. Then John Barton, who recommended Belane to Lady Death, calls. He hires Belane to find the Red Sparrow, not otherwise identified.
There's an insider's joke here, one of many. John Martin, longtime supporter and publisher of Bukowski's work, owns Black Sparrow Press, sometimes called the house a poet built, the poet being Bukowski. "You've got talent," says John Barton in the accents of John Martin, "It's a little raw but it's part of the charm." Much of the spoofing in Pulp is at the expense of Bukowski, another hard-drinking, tough-talking, horse-playing barroom brawler, and like other novelists, a species of private investigator.
A third new client, Jack Bass, hires Belane to find out whether his wife, Cindy, née Cindy Maybell, Miss Chili Cook-Off of 1980, is playing around. (She is, in a way—with Celine.)
Then there is Hal Grovers, a mortician, who is being pestered by "a hot number from outer space" named Jeannie Nitro, a body snatcher from Zoros as it turns out. Her powers are pretty much those of that other Jeannie, of television fame. Finally Celine hires Belane to prove or disprove that Lady Death is what she claims to be. (She is, as Celine finds out—the hard way.)
There's lots of fun and much ingenuity in the way each of these separate cases becomes a ratchet, a cam, a cog, a flywheel in the works of the others, one big melting watch. But about three-quarters of the way through, the fun thins out, the death-haunted atmosphere thickens and there is a sense of time running out. First Jeannie and her companions decide they will not, after all, stay to colonize Earth. "It's just too awful," she says. "Smog, murder, the poisoned air, the poisoned water, the poisoned food, the hatred, the hopelessness, everything."
Then Belane distances himself from that everything to move inexorably toward the Red Sparrow, in the way a man might move in fear and longing to embrace his own death. Belane gets "enveloped" by the Sparrow in the way a dead writer gets absorbed by his words—as printed, in this case, by Black Sparrow Press.
As parody, Pulp does not cut very deep. As a farewell to readers, as a gesture of rapprochement with death, as Bukowski's sendup and send-off of himself, this bio-parable cuts as deep as you would want.
SOURCE: "Bum steered," in New Statesman and Society, June 17, 1994, pp. 37-38.
[Young provides a favorable review of the Bukowski anthology Run With The Hunted: A Charles Bukowski Reader.]
Any serious reader thinks they know only too well what Charles Bukowski's work will deliver. Wet rings on bar counters; the swish of the barman's dirty cloth. Rotgut whisky and paint-stripper wine. Misanthropy. Despair. Women with big, swaying bottoms and very high heels. A touch of misogyny. Barflies, bums, floozies, the tote, the track and the betting shop. He's typing in his underwear in a low-rent room, with a filthy glass, an empty bottle and an overflowing ashtray beside him. Yes, we had him well sussed.
And so, with all due respect to this recently departed author, why read any more of the old fart's books? After all there are nearly 50 of them—poetry, short stories and novels (as well as the screenplay for Barfly)—with his reason for choosing one form over another often seeming to be quite arbitrary.
These were my feelings, vaguely, upon picking up Run With The Hunted, and seldom have smug assumptions been so suddenly and sharply rebuked. I read this at one sitting and found it to be one of the rarest of volumes—a beautifully edited anthology of a writer's work, collated by an editor profoundly sympathetic to his author's intentions.
From the vast vat of Bukowski homebrew, John Martin has distilled a cut-glass decanter of 100-proof literary perfection. That he should have been able to do so is not altogether surprising as Martin, at Black Sparrow Press, has been Bukowski's most consistent publisher and editor, as well as supporter and mentor. It was he who released Bukowski in the 1960's, at the age of 45, from 11 years of wage slavery at the post office by offering him $100 a month if he would do nothing else but write. And this Bukowski did—whether drunk or sober, rich, poor, infatuated or broken-hearted. But then Bukowski had written obsessionally for a long time before that—apart from a 10-year alcoholic hiatus during the 1950's when his liver swelled to the size of a watermelon.
This is a poignant and moving book. By the simple expedient of using extracts from Bukowski's books and poems in chronological order (corresponding to his life story) rather than in the order that they were published, Martin in effect supplies us with Bukowski's own autobiography. Born in Germany in 1920, Bukowski landed in America in infancy and spent his life in Los Angeles, a city he both loved and hated.
His childhood was blighted by a brutal father—"a cruel, shiny bastard with bad breath". In adolescence he suffered terribly from boils and acne and from the gut-churning treatments available at the time. These experiences left him feeling ugly and hopeless and he drifted into a long series of dead-end jobs, including a stint in a dog biscuit factory. At other times he existed as a Skid Row bum.
Despite his decades of devoted reading and writing, his straightforward, largely autobiographical work received little attention until his middle years, when he was discovered by a disaffected post-Beat audience of younger readers, particularly in Europe, and propelled into the spotlight. His persona became increasingly fixed and near-parodic but he did attempt to write about the cryptic, complex ways of fame with honesty and intelligence.
He noted in detail both its advantages—meeting celebrities, other writers and being showered with groupies from Planet Mensa—and its disadvantages—which were more or less identical. He tended to cling nostalgically to his old, grimy alcoholic ways until taken in hand by second wife Linda, who enabled him to die a rich drunken bum.
In addition to its acerbic edge, Bukowski's writing always possessed a sense of the frailty of human endeavor. Hemingway was his most obvious stylistic influence. Bukowski's was a lifelong struggle to express himself clearly, honestly and concisely. He has similarities with Henry Miller and, like Miller, has had trouble over his alleged "sexism", although much of this seems no more than normal lust accompanied by the bewilderment and irritations that attend its slaking.
Bukowski's own influence on younger writers has been subtle and pernicious. There is a hugely increased tendency to substitute personal experience for imagination in fiction. Much new fiction shows how gifted Bukowski was in shaping and organizing the original material into something far more significant than a self-obsessed diary.
John Martin has done Bukowski a great service—and a sort of disservice too. After such a brilliantly constructed anthology, who is going to read all the books? His posthumous novel Pulp is the first to take a non-autobiographical tack. It is modeled on the hard-boiled private-eye novels of Chandler and Hammett and is likely to divert those who appreciate that genre, and its lively collision with Bukowksi's trademark style.
SOURCE: "Lady Death and Aliens from the Planet Zaros," in Los Angeles Times Book Review, October 30, 1994, p. 11.
[In the following, Lochte summarizes and favorably reviews Pulp.]
Private eye Nick Belane sits in his sleazy downtown L.A. office, alone and lonely. It's hot outside and his air conditioner is on the fritz. His rent is overdue. He looks at a fly crawling across the top of his desk. Ever since the prime of Raymond Chandler, and probably long before that, fictional private eyes have been sitting at their desks, sweating and studying flies. But Pulp's Belane is a little different. A woozily parodic creation of the swirling mind of the late writer-poet Charles Bukowski, he is both earthier and more fanciful than his predecessors. And his pursuits are certainly more literary.
For example, Chandler's Philip Marlowe (in the novel The Little Sister) uses a swatter on his fly, then picks the insect up daintily by one wing and deposits it into a wastebasket. Belane smashes his with his bare hand and, barely pausing to wipe the result onto his pants leg, he fields a call from a client. It's Lady Death. Not some television horror movie hostess, but the genuine article. She hires Belane to find Louis-Ferdinand Celine, who has been seen at a used book store searching for Faulkner first editions. The problem is that the French novelist died back in the '60s. And if that isn't enough to make a shamus swill all the sake in his bottom desk drawer, Lady Death is just the first of a series of clients with odd requests.
There's John Barton, who hires him to get a line on the elusive Red Sparrow, whatever it may be. And entrepreneur Jack Bass, who asks him to follow Mrs. Bass, the former Miss Chili Cookoff of 1990, who he thinks may be deceiving him with another man. And, strangest of all, there 4-foot-8 Hal Grovers, who wants him to get rid of the woman who's making his life a living hell, Jeannie Nitro, who just happens to be one of six space aliens from the planet Zaros here to settle down on our browning earth.
In true detective novel tradition, the cases are related. And in his own blunt, heavy-handed manner, Belane works his way through to their solutions. This makes for a whimsical and oddly charming (a word not often used in describing Bukowski's work) spoof. The literary allusions are amusing. John Barton is a stand-in for John Martin, the owner of Black Sparrow Press, his publisher of record. Celine was a novelist whose world view and use of argot probably made him a Bukowski favorite. Two dim leg-breakers are named Dante and Fante, the former probably a reference to the poet of Divine Comedy fame, the later to John Fante who pioneered fictional studies of Hollywood's demimonde a bit before Bukowski. The explanation of the author's reason for depicting them as thugs I leave to better informed students of his work, along with any subtext to the rest of the cast of characters, including bookstore owner Red Kowldowsky, McKelvy the landlord and the treacherous beauty Deja Fountain.
Bukowski obviously wasn't out to bury the private detective genre with this playful pastiche. But he was toying with its conventions, with the smart talk and tough guy attitude. Probably of deeper import is the realization that, with all the boozy goofiness and slapstick whimsy of Belane's caper, this is very much an autobiographical work, a portrait of the aging author as an aging private eye, always on the case whether he is following up serious lines of inquiry or tossing away all his loot at Hollywood Park or in some dim bar.
Pulp was printed only months after his death last March at the age of 73. Though a few decades younger, Belane's sense of his own mortality is acute. Everywhere he looks he sees people and places he knew leaving the scene. And after he delivers Celine to Lady Death and she reclaims him, Belane and his client have this conversation:
"You haven't seen the last of me," the Lady said.
"Look, baby, can't we cut a deal?"
"It's never been done, Belane."
"Well, O.K., but how about giving me a date, your know, a D.O.D.?"
"Date of Demise."
"What good would that do?"
"Lady, I could prepare myself."
"Every human should anyhow, Belane."
"Lady, they don't, they forget it, they ignore it or they're just too stupid to think it."
Eventually, he arrives at his moment of truth. "This can't be happening, I thought. This isn't the way it's supposed to happen." But it does, at a time when Belane has solved all of his cases. One hopes that Bukowski solved all of his, too.
SOURCE: "Sex, Women, and Irony," from Against the American Dream: Essays on Charles Bukowski, Black Sparrow Press, 1994, pp. 183-215.
[In the following essay, Harrison challenges the common view of Bukowski as a chauvinist and misogynist. He illustrates his point with several selections from Post Office, Factotem, and Women, in which Bukowski ironically deconstructs the macho male image.]
"Why can't you be decent to people?" she asked.
"Fear," I said.
No aspect of Bukowski's writing has been more sharply criticized than his portrayal of women. In response to his early work, one critic [Len Fulton] wrote (hyperbolically but with some justification):
Bukowski's antics with women, his thoughts about them, are one vast and sniggering cliché. He has nothing to tell us about them because, I'm convinced, he knows nothing about them (e.g., "the ladies will always be the same.") and is determined at this point not to learn. They are a dirty joke to him, a dirty joke on him. Inside the web of his booze-bull-and-broad exploits lurks a demon sexual jingoist, erupting and irrupting in self-punishing concatenations; hostile, frustrated, pugilistic—fearful of the role into which (he thinks) one is cast by fate of genitalia.
Although such a characterization is no longer valid, it represents an early (and continuing) response to Bukowski's work. However, his depiction of women has changed significantly over the third of a century in which he has been writing. The crucial period for this change was the 1970's and this essay focuses on the novels written during this period; just in the seven years between Post Office (1971) and Women (1978) there was an increased subtlety of characterization, a more nuanced treatment of psychological dynamics and less reliance on stereotypes.
While I will discuss Bukowski's undeniable male chauvinism, what has become significant in his writing is the irony with which he has come to treat his protagonist's machismo, something which distinguishes him from many male American novelists of his generation. Reading Fulton's comments after reading Women, it becomes clear how far Bukowski has moved from his earlier position.
Kate Millett's 1970 book Sexual Politics provides a useful background for such a discussion. There, she places the women's movement in a historical context and develops categories for the analysis of patriarchal society's views of women in literature. She convincingly argues that women were rarely depicted objectively by modern male authors who were the prisoners of myth and of a puritanical view of sexuality in which a woman, by virtue of her interest in and enjoyment of sex was seen as perverse or defiled. Her periodization of the liberation movement is also useful. She notes that the years 1930–1960 represented a counter-revolutionary period with respect to women's liberation. This is important in any discussion of Bukowski's work because it underlines the fact that part of his boyhood, all of his adolescence, and part of his maturity took place during an era of reaction against women's gains, while his novels were written and published in the middle of the "second wave" of women's liberation.
In his novels Bukowski has depicted a number of women through their relationships with Henry Chinaski; indeed, one of the reasons "thoughtful female readers find no chance whatsoever to positively identify with the female characters" is that women are rarely presented independent of their relationships with Chinaski. By the time Bukowski came to write Women, however, this had begun to change and his depiction of women and sexual relationships gradually shifted from crude descriptions of events and flat characterizations of women to fuller descriptions, more rounded characterizations and female characters who, it was suggested, had lives outside the orbit of Henry Chinaski.
In his first novel, Post Office, Bukowski depicts events that, but for their brevity, might suggest comparison with the most chauvinist scenes in Henry Miller:
I think it was my second day as a Christmas temp that this big woman came out and walked around with me as I delivered letters. What I mean by big was that her ass was big and her tits were big and that she was big in all the right places. She seemed a bit crazy but I kept looking at her body and I didn't care.
She talked and talked and talked. Then it came out. Her husband was an officer on an island far away and she got lonely, you know, and lived in this little house in back all by herself.
"What little house?" I asked.
She wrote the address on a piece of paper.
"I'm lonely too," I said, "I'll come by and we'll talk tonight."
I was shacked but the shackjob was gone half the time, off somewhere, and I was lonely all right. I was lonely for that big ass standing beside me.
"All right," she said, "see you tonight."
She was a good one all right, she was a good lay but like all lays after the 3rd or 4th night I began to lose interest and didn't go back.
Here, on the first page of Bukowski's first novel, the woman is objectified in the crudest terms, presented as mentally problematic, the aggressor and unfaithful. But even in such a crude and simplistic depiction, there are hints of a subtler dynamic: along with the woman's seemingly unambiguous infidelity, a reason for her behavior is suggested: her husband is away (i.e., withholding his affection), behavior repeated by Chinaski who soon stops seeing the woman.
A few pages further along, Chinaski encounters a woman who grabs a registered letter (without signing for it) which he then attempts to retrieve, forcing his way into the house:
"YOU HAVE NO RIGHT IN MY HOUSE! GET OUT!"
"And you have no right to rob the mails! Either give me the letter back or sign for it. Then I'll leave."
"All right! All right! I'll sign."
I showed her where to sign and gave her a pen. I looked at her breasts and the rest of her and I thought, what a shame she's crazy, what a shame, what a shame.
She handed back the pen and her signature—it was just scrawled. She opened the letter, began to read it as I turned to leave.
Then she was in front of the door, arms spread across. The letter was on the floor.
"Evil evil evil man! You came here to rape me!"
"Look lady, let me by."
"THERE IS EVIL WRITTEN ALL OVER YOUR FACE!"
"Don't you think I know that? Now let me out of here!"
With one hand I tried to push her aside. She clawed one side of my face, good. I dropped my bag, my cap fell off, and as I held a handkerchief to the blood she came up and raked the other side.
"YOU CUNT! WHAT THE HELL'S WRONG WITH YOU!"
"See there? See there? You're evil!"
She was right up against me. I grabbed her by the ass and got my mouth on hers. Those breasts were against me, she was all up against me. She pulled her head back, away from me—
"Rapist! Rapist! Evil rapist!"
I reached down with my mouth, got one of her tits, then switched to the other.
"Rape! Rape! I'm being raped!"
She was right. I got her pants down, unzipped my fly, got it in, then walked her backwards to the couch. We fell down on top of it.
She lifted her legs high.
"RAPE!" she screamed.
I finished her off, zipped my fly, picked up my mail pouch and walked out leaving her staring quietly at the ceiling …
Once more a woman is depicted as disturbed and aggressive—although here it is a more complicated situation; indeed, although she cries "rape!", she is shown as partially complicit and when Chinaski agrees that it is rape, we feel he doesn't really believe it, that somehow her physical aggression sanctions his sexual violence. But he does rape her, or at least I think most readers would see it that way, and such irony as there is in the passage is overshadowed by the protagonist's brutal actions and crude chauvinist language. Such language is especially evident in Post Office because Bukowski is nowhere near as effective in distancing himself from Chinaski as he became in the later novels.
If the writing is sometimes repetitive and unmediated in Post Office, this is no longer the case in Factotum (1975). But although Bukowski's distance from his protagonist is more evident and the writing more skillful, the underlying dynamic remains the same. On the first page of the novel, soon after his arrival in Miami, Henry Chinaski is assaulted by the siren call of a "high yellow": "Hey, poor white trash!" and responding, is made a fool of. Twenty-odd pages later in the first explicit sexual encounter of the novel he is literally assaulted by Martha, a fellow-lodger in his rooming house. After some brief conversation and a dance-cum-strip-tease Martha attacks:
Suddenly her eyes narrowed. I was sitting on the edge of the bed. She leapt on me before I could move. Her open mouth was pressed on mine. It tasted of spit and onions and stale wine and (I imagined) the sperm of four hundred men. She pushed her tongue into my mouth. It was thick with saliva, I gagged and pushed her off. She fell on her knees, tore open my zipper, and in a second my soft pecker was in her mouth. She sucked and bobbed. Martha had a small yellow ribbon in her short grey hair. There were warts and big brown moles on her neck and cheeks.
My penis rose; she groaned, bit me. I screamed, grabbed her by the hair, pulled her off. I stood in the center of the room wounded and terrified. They were playing a Mahler symphony on the radio. Before I could move she was down on her knees and on me again. She gripped my balls mercilessly with both of her hands. Her mouth opened, she had me; her head bobbed, sucked, jerked. Giving my balls a tremendous yank while almost biting my pecker in half she forced me to the floor. Sucking sounds filled the room as my radio played Mahler. I felt as if I were being eaten by a pitiless animal. My pecker rose, covered with spittle and blood. The sight of it threw her into a frenzy. I felt as if I was being eaten alive.
If I come, I thought desperately, I'll never forgive myself.
The last sentence is one of the funniest in all of Bukowski's writings. Rarely has the mind-body split been presented so comically. The tactic Bukowski uses is reminiscent of the effective use of humor in his social criticism (noted in the last chapter) as he treats a subject of some (psychological) weight—Chinaski's reluctance to lose control—in a comic way.
Here the male has completely lost control; while the scene is comic, it is the comic transformation of the male's ultimate nightmare: he—or at least his penis—has fallen prey to a sexually devouring woman. The depiction of a wounded and terrified Chinaski radically contravenes our traditional expectations. To appreciate how radically, we need only try to imagine Henry Miller or Norman Mailer invoking such a protagonist. Both Miller and Miler have too much invested in maintaining the male's power to allow this much loss of control or to present what is at bottom for them a serious issue—in fact, the issue, as a subject for jest.
Chinaski, in a tactic not unknown in Bukowski, gives the woman money afterwards, although she hasn't mentioned payment and, indeed, seems content with the pleasure she has derived from the act itself. Commodifying the act is the male's last-gasp attempt to maintain control and escape his victimization (inherent in his being treated as an object) by reversing the roles. This passage represents something quite unusual in the presentation of a male protagonist in American fiction. Though it does not depict the woman positively, indeed not even as fully human, neither is it the language of simple chauvinism, and its significance lies as much in what it reveals about men and the masculine role as in its degradation of women. The male's loss of control and the anxiety it provokes are clear in the language. The passage is comic, but the comedy is also a defense against the anxiety occasioned by the loss of control.
In Factotum, Bukowski develops Chinaski's passivity, even masochism, which, along with the theme of male victimization is the virtual signature of the protagonist. This becomes obvious in his relationship with Gertrude, a young woman he meets in his St. Louis roominghouse. They become emotionally involved (though not lovers).
Whenever I went out into the hall of the roominghouse Gertrude seemed to be standing there. She was perfect, pure, maddening sex, and she knew it, and she played on it, dripped it, and allowed you to suffer for it. It made her happy. I didn't feel too bad either. Like most men in that situation I realized that I wouldn't get anything out of her—intimate talks, exciting roller-coaster rides, long Sunday afternoon walks—until after I had made some odd promises.
Here the masochistic element, which runs like a red thread through Chinaski's relationships, appears explicitly for the first time, expressed in the passage: "She was sex … and allowed you to suffer for it. It made her happy. I didn't feel too bad either."
In one sense, Chinaski remains in control by denying women sex, or deeper involvement (thus expressing a sadism that we would also expect to be present), but this is not the whole story. The ambivalence of the situation is reflected in the odd construction: "allowed you to suffer." The more expected phrasing would be "made you suffer," but this is too straight-forward and suggests the possibility of an open conflict whereas in the narrator's phrasing, the male is presented as totally powerless and the choice of "allowed" implies that something desirable, pleasurable, i.e., painful, is being granted, a projection of his own masochistic delight in the situation; indeed the tentativeness of Chinaski's language in the whole exchange is marked, as if he is almost pleading to be subjected to Gertrude's power.
However, this is only the opening gambit in a more complex interaction. Gertrude is interested in Chinaski and shows it. Yet Chinaski is obviously of two minds. In spite of his knowledge of the need for "some odd promises," he allows the relationship to progress, ostensible grateful for her "allow[ing] him to be warmed by a glimpse of it." One night Chinaski takes Gertrude to a bar:
Gertrude turned her head and started into the crowd of people. Then she looked at me.
"Isn't he handsome?"
"That soldier over there. He's sitting alone. He sits so straight. And he's got all his medals on."
"Come on, let's get out of here."
"But it's not late."
"You can stay."
"No, I want to go with you."
"I don't care what you do."
"Is it the soldier? Are you mad because of the soldier?"
"It was the soldier!"
I stood up at the table, left a tip and walked toward the door. I heard Gertrude behind me. I walked down the street in the snow. Soon she was walking at my side.
"You didn't even get a taxi. These high heels in the snow!"
I didn't answer. We walked the four or five blocks to the rooming house. I went up the steps with her beside me. Then I walked down to my room, opened the door, closed it, got out of my clothes and went to bed. I heard her throw something against the wall of her room.
While Gertrude is interested in Chinaski, he, needing a reason to end a difficult situation (difficult because his involvement entails vulnerability), uses the pretext of her casual remarks about the soldier to terminate the relationship. While the incident may have been used to suggest the faithlessness of women (a theme in Bukowski), the underlying cause of the break is the protagonist's failure to respond to a woman's emotional needs. What, in fact, has happened? Gertrude has become involved with Chinaski who, not interested in a deeper relationship, has nevertheless allowed Gertrude to become involved and causes her pain by his behavior. What has taken place is the reverse of what had been described in the passage quoted earlier: he has allowed her to become involved with him and makes her suffer for it. Gertrude is obviously ambivalent, too; her attraction to the soldier stems not so much from his physical attractiveness as from his "straightness": he has played the game correctly, has gotten medals to prove it, whereas the appeal of Chinaski is his refusal to play the game (which also appeals to Gertrude).
This passivity is again evident in the relationship with Laura (the first extended sexual relationship in the novel). While Chinaski initiates it, it soon becomes clear who is in control. Chinaski buys Laura four of five drinks, then tells her, "That drink was it. I'm broke."
"Are you serious?"
"Do you have a place to stay?"
"An apartment, two or three days left on the rent."
"And you don't have any money? Or anything to drink?"
"Come with me."
Laura, along with two other women, Grace and Jerry, is living with and being supported by Wilbur Oxnard, an eccentric millionaire who is writing an opera, The Emperor of San Francisco. Chinaski is accepted into the fold, ostensibly to write the libretto. At one time or another, each of the women had been Wilbur's lover, though "Grace is his main girl." Wilbur has a boat and on it, in one memorable chapter, Chinaski has sex, seriatim, with all three women, though Laura is his main woman. The situation as it develops is noteworthy because here he immediately moves in with (sort of) the first woman he meets who shows him the slightest bit of affection and who has sex with him and by virtue of his relationship with her winds up being supported by Wilbur. This complete "surrender" doesn't jibe with the independent loner image that Chinaski likes to project. That Chinaski himself recognizes this and is, momentarily, made uneasy by the developing structure of the relationship is apparent when, on the night of their first meeting they return to his apartment with liquor, food and cigarettes (charged to Wilbur): "I brought her drink and curled up next to her. I did feel foolish." It is the loss of control that is at the root of this feeling.
Throughout the book women continue to initiate relationships. The most important such relationship, with Jan Meadows, begins somewhat as the relationship with Laura began:
We had met at an open air lunch counter—I was spending my last fifty cents on a greasy hamburger—and we struck up a conversation. She bought me a beer, gave me her phone number, and three days later I moved into her apartment.
The relationship is broken off, a good deal later there is a reconciliation, and then it ends for good. Jan precipitates both breakups, though the first time it is Chinaski who leaves. This occurs after a period in which Chinaski has been working regularly and also winning money at the track.
The new life didn't sit well with Jan. She was used to her four fucks a day and also used to seeing me poor and humble. After a day at the warehouse, then the wild ride and finally sprinting across the parking lot and down through the tunnel, there wasn't much love left in me. When I came in each evening she'd be well into her wine.
"Mr. Horseplayer," she'd say as I walked in. She'd be all dressed up; high heels, nylons, legs crossed high, swinging her foot. "Mr. Big Horseplayer. You know, when I first met you I liked the way you walked across a room. You didn't just walk across a room, you walked like you were going to walk through a wall, like you owned everything, like nothing mattered. Now you get a few bucks in your pocket and you're not the same anymore. You act like a dental student or a plumber."
Whatever superficial cogency Chinaski's explanation might initially possess is demolished by the exchange that follows:
"Don't give me any shit about plumbers, Jan."
"You haven't made love to me in two weeks."
"Love takes many forms. Mine has been more subtle."
"You haven't fucked me for two weeks."
Surely Jan has a point in that the reduction in the incidence of lovemaking from about 28 times per week (!) to zero cannot be completely traced to the demands made on Chinaski's stamina by steady employment and the visits to the track (he is, after all, in his twenties); clearly Chinaski has begun to withdraw his affection from Jan, and her complaint, which his superficial riposte does nothing to answer, seems justified. Jan's focus is not so much on Chinaski's having money but on his going to the track which takes place after work and thus deprives her of his company. Chinaski, however, subtly changes the grounds of her complaint: "The arguments were always the same. I understood it too well now—that great lovers were always men of leisure. I fucked better as a bum than as a puncher of timeclocks." Again, there is an element of projection here. It is Chinaski who resents having to work whereas Jan's objection merely expresses her resentment at his neglecting her for the track; he takes his resentment out on Jan because she is an easy target. Jan has said nothing at all about the quality of their lovemaking (indeed, how could she, since there hasn't been any), only wanted to make love. What has happened has been a replay of the relationship with Gertrude: the woman has become emotionally involved with Chinaski and Chinaski has begun to withdraw from her. The result is that Jan, naturally enough, begins to seek love and affection elsewhere:
Most of the evenings fell into a pattern. She'd argue, grab her purse and be gone out the door. It was effective; we had lived and loved together for too many days. I had to feel it and feel it I did. But I always let her go as I sat helpless in my chair and drank my whiskey and tuned in the radio to a bit of classical music. I knew she was out there, and I knew there would be somebody else. Yet I had to let it happen, I had to let events take their own course.
This particular evening I sat there and something just broke in me and I got up and walked down the four flights of stairs and into the street. I walked down from Third and Union Streets to Sixth Street and then West along Sixth toward Alvarado. I walked along past the bars and I knew she was in one of them. I made a guess, walked in, and there was Jan sitting at the far end of the bar. She had a green and white silk scarf spread across her lap. She was sitting between a thin man with a large wart on his nose, and another man who was a little humped mound of a thing wearing bifocals and dressed in an old black suit.
Jan saw me coming. She lifted her head and even in the gloom of the bar she seemed to pale. I walked up behind her, standing near her stool. "I tried to make a woman out of you but you'll never be anything but a goddamned whore!" I back-handed her and knocked her off the stool. She fell flat on the floor and screamed. I picked up her drink and finished it. Then I slowly walked towards the exit. When I got there I turned. "Now, if there's anybody here … who doesn't like what I just did … just say so."
There was no response. I guess they liked what I just did, I walked back out on Alvarado Street.
The portrayal of the male and of the psychological dynamics at work, in this passage, lies somewhere between the depictions of Post Office and those of Women. There is no irony here although there are obvious contradictions. Initially, it seems Bukowski wants the reader to see things from Chinaski's point of view. Jan's "infidelity" is being used to justify Chinaski's ending the relationship; once again, Chinaski is shown as victimized. Rhetorically, Bukowski gives Chinaski an edge (though calling Jan's behavior a "counterattack" implies that she is the original victim). He is "helpless," though this contradicts the assumption of control in "I always let her go," which is in turn trumped by "I had to let it happen … to let events take their own course"; this last is itself an ambivalent formulation, the redundant "own" perversely indicating the protagonist's control. But overall, the passage conjures up a victimized Chinaski, forced to be content with "a bit" of music. Given his unwillingness (or inability) to deal with his conflicts, Chinaski must view himself as betrayed.
It is Chinaski's contention that all women are whores or at least all the women he becomes involved with. But in reality he is almost never involved with prostitutes and Jan is not a prostitute. Chinaski feels compelled to make women into whores (in his eyes) and here we can see one reason why. His own implication in terminating relationships is disguised and evaded if women can be presented as inherently unfaithful, like prostitutes. It seems obvious that what Jan most wants here is companionship. Clearly, were sex her intent, she would hardly have chosen "a thin man with a large wart on his nose" or "a little humped mound of a thing wearing bifocals and dressed in an old black suit." If it seemed at first that it was Bukowski's purpose to justify Chinaski's behavior, he concludes by letting us see that Chinaski's inability to sustain relationships is the issue, not Jan's, although it is a nice question as to how conscious a strategy this is in Factotum. (It is clearly so in Women.)
Not too long after the incident in the bar Jan and Henry separate in an unusually abrupt way. They are drinking in their apartment: "When Jan brought the drink I drank it straight down. 'You keep the car,' I said, 'and half the money I have left is yours.'" No reason is given for Chinaski's wanting to leave, but in the preceding chapter, five pages after the incident in the bar (the exact mid-point of the novel), Chinaski has a revealing dream, which forms all of chapter 51.
Though the entire chapter is printed in italics and, after the introductory paragraph, is one long paragraph, not even being indented for dialogue, the description is quite realistic and not very dream-like (it is only the violence and possible murder that suggest a lack of reality in the event); so realistic that we can believe that Henry Chinaski, on awakening, has trouble believing it was only a dream. (And not just Henry Chinaski. Readers, too, not infrequently ignore the italics and think a murder has been committed.) In the dream Henry and Jan go to the race track at Los Alamitos. On returning to their seats after placing their bets, they find that their places in the grandstand have been taken by a "small gray-haired man." They had previously placed newspapers there to indicate that the seats were taken. They explain to the man that this is the custom, but he simply says, "These seats are NOT reserved." After that they go for a drink and Jan taunts Chinaski, saying the old man had "called your card." Chinaski replies, "What can a guy do with an old man?" to which Jan responds, "If he had been young you wouldn't have done anything either." When they return to where they have squeezed in beside the old man, Jan begins to flirt:
Jan sat down next to him. Their legs were pressed together. "What do you do for a living?" Jan asked him. "Real estate. I make sixty thousand a year—after taxes." "Then why don't you buy a reserved seat?" I asked. "That's my prerogative." Jan pressed her flank against him. She smiled her most beautiful smile. "You know," she said, "you've got the nicest blue eyes?" "Uh huh." "What's your name?" "Tony Endicott." "My name is Jan Meadows. My nickname is Misty."
After this continues for a little while, Chinaski grabs the man by his shirt collar and, after a struggle, manages to push him down between the rows of the grandstand, a thirty-five foot drop.
It is, presumably, the emotions that caused such a dream, along with Jan's behavior, that prompt Chinaski to think that it's time to get out of the relationship, although we are told nothing of this. But while no explicit connection between the dream and the first break-up is made, there is an implicit connection between this dream and the final break-up between Jan and Henry at the end of the novel. After a gap of eighty pages, in which Jan has only been mentioned once, she reappears, only to disappear for good:
The day before I had helped Jan move in with a fat real estate operator who lived on Kingsley drive. I'd stood back out of sight in the hall and watched him kiss her; then they'd gone into his apartment together and the door had closed…. We'd been evicted from our apartment. I had $2.08. Jan promised me she'd be waiting when my luck changed but I hardly believed that. The real estate operator's name was Jim Bemis, he had an office on Alvarado Street and plenty of cash. "I hate it when he fucks me," Jan had said. She was now probably saying the same thing about me to him.
Chinaski suggests that Jan has left him because he's down on his luck. Yet that was his situation when they met: a man spending his "last fifty cents on a greasy hamburger," whom she had to buy a beer. Hence, lack of money isn't the issue. But it's important that it seem the issue in order to reinforce Chinaski's view of women as faithless and predatory creatures drawn only by wealth. Though Chinaski doesn't actually say that that's why she's leaving him, the implication is more effective than any explicit statement could be because it is presented "objectively," solely in terms of "facts": he has no money; the real estate "operator" does; the reader draws the conclusion. (We might also wonder why, if Jan does leave him because he has no money, Chinaski earlier asserted that she liked him best as a "bum.")
Because the reasons for this—as for the earlier—break-up are not explored (and because the scene recalls Jan's behavior towards the wealthy real-estate salesman in the dream), we can see that the function of this scene is to show Jan deserting Chinaski in his hour of need, clearly a false and self-serving construction of the events, aimed at justifying Chinaski's view of women. There is yet another attempt to create sympathy for the "victimized" Chinaski when, concealed, he is described as "watch[ing]" them kiss. Why he waits around to view this moment is not hard to guess: it represents both the actual confirmation of Jan's "unfaithfulness" as well as a masochistic gratification.
In summary, we can say that in these novels women are presented as aggressive and faithless, "allowing" men to suffer, "whores" attracted to men with money. Men are shown as "helpless" creatures who not infrequently, the moment a woman becomes interested in them, move in with her. For the most part, relationships are synonymous with conflict and inevitably end in bitterness.
Bukowski's third novel, Women (1978), represents a change in his depiction of women and of relationships between men and women. Here such relations are the dominant theme of the novel which focuses on the interpersonal and the emotional (although fame and success are important sub-themes) as Bukowski treats such issues as the possibility of lasting relationships, sexuality and "what men want." While the protagonist of the novel continues to objectify women, it is an objectification that often subverts itself by depicting the male chauvinist ironically (this is Women's real achievement). There is also, by the end of the novel an attempt to depict women sympathetically.
Historically, the novel came at the end of the second wave of women's liberation. Hence, fifteen years after its publication, Women can be seen as a product of the same era that saw the publication of novels like John Updike's Couples (1968) and Philip Roth's Portnoy's Complaint (1969) and as having come at the end of a twenty-year period of increased equality and sexual freedom for women. Bukowski (born in 1920, in Germany) was in a particularly ambivalent position vis-à-vis such a movement. On the one hand, he gained by the decrease in hypocrisy and the weakening of the Victorian moralism reinstituted during the reactionary period that had coincided with the formative years of his childhood and adolescence. Yet, irresistibly, the attitudes towards women and sex engendered during those years still played a role in the 1960's and 1970's, (Bukowski's forties and fifties). The two distinct dynamics produced both the chauvinism and its ironic treatment.
In the course of Women, according to one critic, Henry Chinaski has sex with "well over 20 women." These relationships yield a representative sample with which to analyze Bukowski's depiction of women and relationships in the late 1970's, as the liberating effects of the 1960's made their way into the general population and as Bukowski approached his 60th birthday.
Octavio Paz's delineation of the macho is useful in revealing how Bukowski's portrayal of men and women has changed:
The fact is that the essential attribute of the macho—power—almost always reveals itself as a capacity for wounding, humiliating, annihilating…. He is power isolated in its own potency, without relationship or compromise with the outside world. He is pure incommunication, a solitude that devours itself and everything it touches.
While this is an apt characterization of the early Chinaski, it is no longer valid for the protagonist of Women. One important difference is Bukowski's attempt in Women to give us more of the feelings of both his protagonist and the women with whom he has relationships. Women is both an attempt to let his protagonist speak, to progress beyond the "pure incommunication … that devours itself and everything it touches" as well as to portray women as more than "wholly mechanical and one dimensional … exploitable objects." While not always successful, the attempt itself represents a profound shift in his thinking. Equally important is the extent to which Bukowski has begun consciously and consistently to treat his male protagonist ironically. Although the book is entitled Women, it is an ironic deconstruction of its womanizing protagonist.
The most important relationship in Women is that between Henry Chinaski and Lydia Vance, a sculptress. It is Bukowski's most successful attempt at presenting such a relationship in depth and (with the exception of Henry Chinaski, Sr. in Ham On Rye) at creating a "round" character other than the protagonist. The two meet at a poetry reading Chinaski is giving. Lydia approaches Chinaski during the break, but is repelled by his crude response: "'I'd like to rip that fringe off your jacket—we could begin there!' Lydia walked off. It hadn't worked. I never knew what to say to the ladies." At moments like these one gets the impression that Chinaski is acting according to an image he has of how men are expected to act rather than how he actually feels. Chinaski, having achieved some fame as a writer (and his writings having been misinterpreted and distorted to present an image that is more his readers' projections than the texts'), has now become a prisoner of that distortion. But even here, there is a somewhat ambivalent turn in that we would expect Chinaski, in his chauvinist mode, to want to rip off more than merely the fringe of the jacket. It should also be noted that this is verbal, not physical, aggression, a not unimportant distinction.
Nevertheless, taking the initiative (as—true to form—do a number of the women in Women) Lydia tries again, coming over to Chinaski's apartment a few days later. After a brief visit, during which Chinaski's interest in her is evident, Lydia leaves and returns two days later and asks if she can sculpt his head. They agree on an appointment for the following morning. During the first session Chinaski plays the aggressor. He grabs Lydia and after two kisses she pushes him away. The sessions continue, however, and one morning he comes over and we see a new and surprising vulnerability in Chinaski:
"Ooooh," she said, "you've got on a new shirt!" It was true. I had bought the shirt because I was thinking about her, about seeing her. I knew that she knew that, and was making fun of me, yet I didn't mind."
Sometime later they consummate the relationship. Shortly before they make love, though, Lydia tells him about herself. Her father had left her some money that "had enabled Lydia to divorce her husband. She also told me she'd had some kind of breakdown and spent time in a madhouse. I kissed her and told her that was fine." There is an irony in the last sentence of which Chinaski is not unaware. On one level, he is assuring Lydia that he is not judgmental. We are undoubtedly meant to see his response as evidence of tenderness and understanding—maturity—on his part. It may well be that. But "fine" is marked here. We would expect "all right," or something similar, a neutral and less positive characterization. On the other hand, anyone familiar with Chinaski's track record, could as easily take it to mean that it is "fine" because Chinaski needs a woman with emotional problems so that, viewing her as "crazy," there will be little chance for the real intimacy that would allow a relationship to develop. Suspicions as to Lydia's motivation (and ultimately as to her rationality) have been raised by an exchange that took place four pages earlier:
"I've heard about you," she said.
"About how you throw guys off your front porch. That you beat your women."
"Beat my women?"
"Yes, somebody told me."
I grabbed Lydia and we went into our longest clinch ever.
Lydia's questionable mental state can also be seen as giving Chinaski (at least in his mind) some power in the relationship.
Before they make love, Lydia warns him:
"Listen," she said, "after you stick that thing inside me, pull it out just before you come. O.K.?"
I climbed on top of her. It was good. It was something happening, something real, and with a girl 20 years younger than I was and really, after all, beautiful. I did about 10 strokes—and came inside of her.
She leaped up.
"You son-of-a-bitch! You came inside of me!"
"Lydia, it's been so long … it felt so good … I couldn't help it."
There are several things worth noting here. Foremost, perhaps, is the humor, and irony of the scene. Lydia's instructions about Chinaski's withdrawing before he ejaculates prepare us, as in a vaudeville routine, for what happens by telegraphing the reader that something is going to happen. This and the tenderness in the scene before they go to bed, where she speaks intimately to Chinaski lead up to the quick climax on Chinaski's part (followed immediately by Lydia's leaping out of bed, hardly the post coitum triste we might expect) which makes a mockery of everything that has gone before, just because it is so thoughtless and self-involved. The humor in Chinaski's half-hearted defense—"it sneaked up on me!"—is capped by their last exchange which opposes sharply different reactions:
"Lydia, I love you."
"Get the hell away from me!"
All of this contributes to making this depiction of seduction and love so distanced and verfremdend and the characters so pathetic that one can see just why Bukowski's writings have often alienated readers. It is not the explicitness of his writing, since he is clearly within the boundaries of realist sexual écriture as it existed from the mid-1960s on in American fiction, but rather the lack of sentiment with which he handles such material. Perhaps even more than the ironic treatment of love, the ironic treatment of sex strikes a disquieting note at this point in our social history.
Yet more than simple irony is at work because in irony an identification with the character is preserved; we cannot fully appreciate the ironic situation of a protagonist unless we feel—at least to some extent—positively involved in his fate. Here, and in other passages in Women, the reader's identification with the protagonist is threatened. In the earlier novels there was no doubt as to whose side the implied author was taking and where the reader's sympathy was being directed. A simplistic view of "right" and "wrong" in such affairs had begun to break down in Factotum as, for example, the bar scene quoted earlier reveals. Now Bukowski is consciously questioning Chinaski's behavior and the male role in such situations and trying to present events from the woman's perspective as well.
The issue of fidelity has also been introduced. The view that women are inherently unfaithful, "whores," is confirmed by what Chinaski perceives as Lydia's flirtatious behavior at a party he throws where, on arriving, "she didn't speak to me but immediately sat down next to a handsome young bookstore clerk and began an intense conversation with him." Chinaski tolerates this behavior, although it clearly upsets him and, again a masochistic trait is apparent. On their first formal date Lydia and Henry drive to Venice beach. They buy food at a delicatessen and then sit on a knoll of grass overlooking the sea where they see "a tall black man," shirtless, with "a very strong muscular body" who "appeared to be in his early twenties."
"Did you see that guy?" she asked.
"Jesus Christ, here I am with you, you're twenty years older than I am. I could have something like that. What the hell's wrong with me?"
"Look. Here are a couple of candy bars. Take one." She took one, ripped the paper off, took a bite and watched the young black man as he walked along the shore.
"I'm tired of the beach," she said, "let's go back to my place."
(The depiction of) Chinaski placatingly offering Lydia the candy bar after she has crudely insulted him is the antithesis of what we would expect from a true representative of the patriarchy. Chinaski's behavior here is quite different from his reaction to Gertrude's comment about the soldier in the bar in Factotum. Bukowski's skill in depicting the nuances of behavior (and to a certain extent of character as well) has increased considerably. The male is no longer imprisoned in stereotypes and stock reactions but is revealed as vulnerable at times and, at other times, as downright unattractive. He has become something quite different from "power isolated in its own potency, without relationship or compromise with the outside world," as Paz described the macho.
The break-up with Lydia is revealing. Chinaski has returned from a reading in Houston where he has had a brief affair with another woman, Laura. He had injured his leg before the trip and it has still not healed on his return to L.A. Met at the airport by Lydia, who is "horny as usual," Chinaski wonders if he can "handle" sex with his injury:
"It's true. I don't think I can fuck with my leg the way it is."
"What the hell good are you then?"
"Well, I can fry eggs and do magic tricks."
"Don't be funny. I'm asking you, what the hell good are you?"
"The leg will heal. If it doesn't they'll cut it off. Be patient."
"If you hadn't been drunk, you wouldn't have fallen and cut your leg. It's always the bottle!"
"It's not always the bottle, Lydia. We fuck about four times a week. For my age that's pretty good."
"Sometimes I think you don't even enjoy it."
"Lydia, sex isn't everything! You are obsessed. For Christ's sake, give it a rest."
"A rest until your leg heals? How am I going to make it meanwhile?"
"I'll play Scrabble with you."
"Lydia screamed. She literally screamed. The car began to swerve all over the street. "YOU SON-OF-A-BITCH! I'LL KILL YOU!"
Clearly Chinaski is acting in bad faith. His injured leg has not prevented him from making love to Laura, so it cannot be the reason he doesn't make love to Lydia. Lydia is depicted as disturbed and obsessed with sex, Chinaski, as having a more balanced view. Chinaski's points are not those we associate with the typical male protagonist, who is again being subverted here. Bukowski uses Chinaski's eminently sane view of sex to gain the reader's sympathy while Lydia's compulsive demands puts her in a bad light. Yet both these positions are in turn undermined; it is clear that sex is not really the issue for either Chinaski or Lydia. The fact is, Chinaski's feelings have changed. It is a nice question, however, as to how much his bad faith causes the reader to withhold giving full credence to the otherwise sensible view he espouses of the place of sex in a relationship. But whatever we finally decide, the tone of Chinaski's argument, and the depiction of Lydia cut across our expectations in this 1970's Thurberesque "battle of the sexes."
Bukowski has begun presenting the male as he is rarely presented in American fiction (especially in what might be termed "the chauvinist tradition"); indeed, he has begun to deconstruct that tradition as we have come to associate it with Hemingway, Miller and Miller. This is effected through a character who, while on one level attempting to maintain the older image of the unreconstructed male chauvinist, on another is aware of the contradictions involved. Right after the break-up with Lydia and about to enter another relationship, he is asked:
"But, Hank, don't forget what you told me about your women."
"Told you what?"
"You said, "They always come back.'"
"That's just macho talk."
Chinaski doesn't want to have sex with Lydia, but Bukowski portrays him as feeling rejected by Lydia because he "can't" have sex. Lydia is presented as a "sexaholic," completely irrational, and relentless in her demands. Previously it had been Chinaski who objectified women, saw them primarily in terms of their physical attractions, as potential objects of his sex drive, denied them mind and emotions. Here this view is projected onto Lydia, who is shown as rejecting companionship. Chinaski does not admit to the fact that it is he who makes the break here by denying her sex (as he had denied Jan sex in Factotum).
In the earlier novels Bukowski was content to let events speak for themselves without making much of an attempt to get at his characters' motivation. In Women he is trying to explain and to have his readers understand why his protagonist acts as he does, to make events intelligible. Laura (renamed "Katherine" by Chinaski for her resemblance to Katharine Hepburn), the woman with whom Chinaski has had sex during his trip to Houston for a poetry reading, figures in one of Chinaski's more significant relationships. Interested in understanding his protagonist, Bukowski has Chinaski trying to understand why that relationship ended. It seems to be going well when, as Chinaski puts it, he "loses her." He takes Laura to the fights and the track where she realizes that he is one of "them," "the racetrack people and the boxing crowd."
That night she drank half a bottle of red wine, good red wine, and she was sad and quiet. I knew she was connecting me with the racetrack people and the boxing crowd, and it was true. I was with them, I was one of them. Katherine knew that there was something about me that was not wholesome in the sense of wholesome is as wholesome does. I was drawn to all the wrong things: I liked to drink, I was lazy, I didn't have a god, politics, ideas, ideals. I was settled into nothingness, a kind of non-being, and I accepted it. It didn't make for an interesting person. I didn't want to be interesting, it was too hard. What I really wanted was only a soft hazy space to live in, and to be left alone. On the other hand, when I got drunk I screamed, went crazy, got all out of hand. One kind of behavior didn't fit the other. I didn't care.
The fucking was very good that night, but it was the night I lost her. There was nothing I could do about it. I rolled off and wiped myself on the sheet as she went into the bathroom. Overhead a police helicopter circled over Hollywood.
Suggestive as this passage is, it really tells us almost nothing about the emotional states of Katherine and Chinaski. Most of what Chinaski says about himself is patently false and what isn't is clearly no news to Katherine who has read his books and must, on one level, be attracted to his lifestyle. To take but one example: to call someone lazy who has worked for decades to become a successful writer is misleading and disingenuous. Chinaski has organized his life efficiently and been extremely productive. And indeed, one might also wonder why Chinaski "loses" Laura in the very night when the lovemaking was "very good." One suspects that, at the very least, something has been elided here. The naturalist profession of faith: "There was nothing I could do about it," is ultimately more faithful to Chinaski's determinist world view, but it is not particularly enlightening.
It is clear that in Women Bukowski wants to create a certain depth to his characters, and depicting their thoughts and feelings is one way to do this. He succeeds in this to a greater extent than he had previously. Yet, in the end, he cannot get outside the narrator, and even then rarely goes beyond superficial analysis. The first sentence of the above passage is good because it relies on description but the repetition of "wine" hints at the felt limits of description alone, because here repetition is substituting for development or qualification. There is the feeling that something more should be said to prepare us for or explain "Katherine's" mood; Bukowski senses this, otherwise there would be no impulse to repeat the fact of the wine; but owing to the limits Bukowski has—consciously or unconsciously—placed on himself, he is at a loss as to how to proceed. Giving us the Volkswagen license plate number—"TRV 469"—in the passage quoted below reflects the same dynamic. As soon as Bukowski tries to go further he inevitably has to revert to the protagonist: "I knew she was connecting me with …"
Once again, Chinaski implies that it is the woman who terminates the affair. Yet they continue to enjoy making love and Laura wants to continue the relationship. After the above-mentioned night of lovemaking and after the fights
Katherine stayed 4 or 5 more days. We had reached the time of the month when it was risky for Katherine to fuck. I couldn't stand rubbers. Katherine got some contraceptive foam. Meanwhile the police had recovered my Volks. We went down to where it was impounded. It was intact and in good shape except for a dead battery. I had it hauled to a Hollywood garage where they put it in order. After a last goodbye in bed I drove Katherine to the airport in the blue Volks. TRV 469.
It wasn't happy day for me. We sat not saying much. Then they called her flight and we kissed.
"Hey, they all saw this young girl kissing this old man."
"I don't give a damn …"
Katherine kissed me again.
"You're going to miss your flight," I said.
"Come see me, Hank. I have a nice house. I live alone. Come see me."
Katherine walked into the boarding tunnel and was gone.
I walked back to the parking lot, got in the Volks, thinking, I've still got this. What the hell, I haven't lost anything.
The odd juxtaposition of the last days of sex with the recovered car, implied in the last sentence of the first paragraph, where a kind of identity is effected between the sex and the car, and then explicitly (if perhaps a bit ironically) stated in the next-to-last paragraph, underline Chinaski's dilemma when humans are objectified. Clearly there are pressures here that remain unexamined; once again Chinaski has rejected the woman but tried to hide that fact from himself. (It is more than a little reminiscent of "Bukowski's" equating the death of his first real love with the "death" of his first automobile in the poem "I didn't want to," discussed above.)
After the relationship with Laura ends, a good part of Women concerns itself with Chinaski's string of relatively casual affairs, with no one relationship depicted as having any great significance (with the obvious exception of the relationship with Sara and with the possible exception of the relationship with Tammie) although the narrator is almost always shown as at least somewhat involved emotionally. While the depiction of intense emotional involvements is foregone, we do have a picture of sex and the American male in the 1970's, the full flowering of the "second phase" of Women's Liberation. Here again, Bukowski has done something noteworthy, not to mention out of "character." In the way that Henry Miller can be taken as representative of male attitudes of an earlier era (and Miller, too, came to a writing career late and represents attitudes characteristic of an earlier generation than the one in which he wrote, while that in which he wrote immediately succeeds an era of increased freedom for women), so Bukowski reflects those of his own era by revealing in his descriptions of sex the changes that have taken place in (sexual) relations between men and women. Miller's "I slipped it in and gave her what's what" (language that reflects the attitude of a murderer, not a lover) has been significantly transformed.
As early as Post Office, sexual intercourse had sometimes been depicted as problematic:
In bed I had something in front of me but I couldn't do anything with it. I whaled and I whaled and I whaled. Vi was very patient. I kept striving and banging but I'd had too much to drink.
"Sorry, baby," I said. Then I rolled off. And went to sleep.
The inability to perform, often because of drink, comes up frequently. It is the pendant to the theme of the sexually assertive woman. Indeed, the traditional view that men have more interest in sex than women is often reversed in these novels: in Post Office, "Joyce, my wife, was a nymph"; in Factotum, "You haven't fucked me for two weeks"; and in Women, "Lydia liked to fuck at least five times a week. I preferred three."
When Chinaski is met at the Houston airport by Joanna Dover, a woman whom he is visiting to escape from Tammie, there is no beating about the bush:
"… Did I interrupt anything?"
"No. There was a garage mechanic. But he petered out. He couldn't stand the pace."
"Be kind to me, Joanna, sucking and fucking aren't everything."
Later, after dinner out and drinking, and then more drinking back at Joanna's place, she says:
"I've drunk too much."
"Let's go to bed."
"I want to drink some more."
"You won't be able to …"
"I know. I hope you'll let me stay four or five days."
"It will depend on your performance," she said.
"That's fair enough."
By the time we finished the wine I could barely make it to the bed. I was asleep by the time Joanna came out of the bathroom …
The affair runs its course: "I lasted five days and nights. Then I couldn't get it up anymore. Joanna drove me to the airport." The roles have been reversed; the woman is sexually the aggressor. The man, sensing his loss of control, feels exploited and resists at first by drinking himself into incapacity, and then is put out to pasture when his usefulness is gone. Looked at realistically, the reasons for the end of the relationship scarcely seem credible. Are we to believe that Chinaski only had it in him to perform for "four or five nights" and then, the first night he can't (or doesn't want to?) make love, Joanna asks him to leave? That she could go at least one night without sex was proven by her having somehow survived the first night without sex. But that is irrelevant. What is important is the way Bukowski has chosen to present the episode, his using it to undermine the traditional male role.
Chinaski's drinking had also interfered in the relationship with Lydia: "She loved sex and my drinking got in the way of our lovemaking. 'Either you're too drunk to do it at night or too sick to do it in the morning'"; later in the novel, with Cassie: "Her body was amazing, glorious, Playboy style, but unfortunately I was drunk"; or with Lilly:
I switched off the bed lamp fast. I kissed her some more, played with her breasts and body, then went down on her. I was drunk, but I think I did O.K. But after that I couldn't do it the other way. I rode and rode and rode. I was hard but I couldn't come. Finally I rolled off exhausted and went to sleep …
and Mindy: "Mindy and I finished the bottle and then went to bed. I kissed her for a while, then apologized, and drew away. I was too drunk to perform. One hell of a great lover"; and Liza:
Without foreplay it was much more difficult but finally I got it in. I began to work. I worked and I worked. It was another hot night. It was like a recurring bad dream. I began sweating. I humped and I pumped. It wouldn't go down, it wouldn't come off. I pumped and I humped. Finally I rolled off. "Sorry, baby, too much to drink."
With Mercedes (after having "dr[u]nk and smoked [marijuana] quite a long time"):
I pumped on and on. Five minutes. Ten minutes more. I couldn't come. I began to fail. I was getting soft. Mercedes got worried. "Make it!" she demanded. "Oh, make it, baby!" That didn't help at all. I rolled off. It was an unbearably hot night. I took the sheet and wiped off the sweat. I could hear my heart pounding as I lay there. It sounded sad. I wondered what Mercedes was thinking. I lay dying, my cock limp.
With Iris: "We drank another hour and then went to bed. I ate her up but when I mounted I just stroked and stroked without effect. Too bad."
Not infrequently sex is just work, and hard labor at that: "I began to work. I worked and I worked … I began sweating. I humped and I pumped…. I pumped and I humped"; "I pumped on and on"; "I worked and worked." And in perhaps the most excruciating sexual moment in the novel:
I worked and I worked … I began to sweat. My back ached. I was dizzy, sick … It was agony, it was relentless work without a reward. I felt damned … I desperately wanted to come … My heart began to pound loudly. I heard my heart. I felt my heart. I felt it in my chest. I felt it in my throat. I felt it in my head. I couldn't bear it. I rolled off with a gasp.
I don't want to give the impression that this is the sole image of sex presented in the novel because it isn't. Sex is often satisfying with the same women with whom sex has been less than satisfying. But it can't be denied that all of this constitutes a distinctly unmacho (not to mention unromantic) depiction of lovemaking. The drinking can be viewed as a means of allaying Chinaski's underlying anxiety, or as a hostile, sadistic way of hurting women by denying them the full pleasure, and intimacy, of successful lovemaking. In any event, there has been a significant amount of slippage in how much control the man has—the decision to have sex, for example, is often the woman's. It cannot be argued that it is not a different image of the male that Bukowski is giving us. The distinctly unromantic, at times alienated, light in which sex is shown offers a different picture of the man and the male role, a part of the larger change in Bukowski's depiction of men.
It is in this larger change that the primary significance of the novel lies. What has happened is that the male protagonist is now being treated ironically. This irony manifests itself both generally and in small, self-deprecating comments by Chinaski, as, for example, when he remarks of himself: "Not a very well-known writer, of course, but I managed to pay the rent and that was astonishing" where the remark also serves to distance the reader from the sexual description. The male has been problematized as the protagonists of Lawrence, Miller and Hemingway had not been.
This deconstruction of the male protagonist in Women, as male, is clear from the first paragraph, indeed, from the first sentence, of the novel:
I was fifty years old and hadn't been to bed with a woman for four years. I had no women friends. I looked at them as I passed them on the streets or wherever I saw them, but I looked at them without yearning and with a sense of futility. I masturbated regularly, but the idea of having a relationship with a woman—even on non-sexual terms—was beyond my imagination. I had a 6 year old daughter born out of wedlock. She lived with her mother and I paid child support. I had been married years before at the age of 35. That marriage lasted two and one half years. My wife divorced me. I had been in love only once.
Relationships with women have become problematic for Henry Chinaski. Although he has sexual relationships with twenty-odd women in the roughly six-year span of the novel, these are rarely devoid of involvement. Indeed, the depths of Chinaski's needs, the overdetermined nature of his involvement (where his complete avoidance of relationships with women then causes him to overvalue any woman, causes him, indeed, to immediately think of marriage) are often ironically mocked, as, for example, with "Katherine," with whom he had spent a night in Houston. She then visits him in L.A. In the evening of the day of her arrival, after they have made love—"It was glorious"—and before falling asleep, Chinaski muses on the day's and evening's events:
For the first time I thought of marriage. I knew that there certainly were flaws in her that had not surfaced. The beginning of a relationship was always the easiest. After that the unveiling began, never to stop. Still, I thought of marriage. I thought of a house, a dog and a cat, of shopping in supermarkets. Henry Chinaski was losing his balls. And didn't care.
At last I slept. When I awakened in the morning Katherine was sitting on the edge of the bed brushing those yards of red-brown hair. Her large dark eyes looked at me as I awakened. "Hello, Katherine," I said, "will you marry me?"
"Please don't," she said, "I don't like it."
"I mean it."
"Oh, shit, Hank!"
"I said, 'shit,' and if you talk that way I'm taking the first plane out."
I looked at Katherine. She kept brushing her long hair. Her large brown eyes looked at me, and she was smiling. She said, "It's just sex, Hank, it's just sex!" Then she laughed. It wasn't a sardonic laugh, it was really joyful. She brushed her hair and I put my arm around her waist and rested my head against her leg. I wasn't quite sure of anything.
It is clear that Chinaski's behavior arises to a much greater extent than is usual from various "historical" psychic factors rather than from a just appreciation of the real person. Indeed, the fact that he can't use her real name, but renames her after a movie star long past her viability as a sex symbol, i.e., she, too, is not being viewed as she is, but as a memorial to some idealized image, indicates the extent to which Chinaski is here operating at a remove from reality.
Such scenes as this one with Katherine have an additional significance. (It is worth noting that this scene is an identical repetition—dynamically—of the scene of the beginning of his relationship with Lydia Vance.) Similar scenes, and there are more than a few in the novel, have, in Bukowski's phrase, a "comic edge" to them, but there is also an underlying seriousness present. Here we have an absolute reversal of the scene where the woman (traditionally viewed as the romantic in such situations) falls in love and it is the man who makes (or thinks) the distinction between love and sex. Thus Women hardly presents a traditional male protagonist, let alone a macho. Surely the image of Chinaski, his head resting against Laura's leg, "not quite sure of anything," is a far cry from Henry Miller's descriptions, who to the best of my knowledge has never written a scene of such calm intimacy and whose descriptions of alienated sex and objectified women are too well known to require quotation. In fact, whenever, in Women, Chinaski attempts such a role, attempts, that is, to act "in character," he is unsuccessful. At one point in the novel, after a fight with Lydia, he goes to the track and has a good night, drinking and betting, leaving "$950 ahead." He calls Lydia from a phone booth:
"Listen," I said, "listen, you bitch. I went to the harness races tonight and won $950. I'm a winner! I'll always be a winner! You don't deserve me, bitch! You've been playing with me! Well, it's over! I want out!. This is it! I don't need you and your goddamned games! Do you understand me? Do you get the message? Or is your head thicker than your ankles?"
"This isn't Lydia. This is Bonnie. I'm baby sitting for Lydia. She went out tonight."
I hung up and walked back to my car.
Here Chinaski and his "macho talk" are ridiculed. Such passages sabotaging the traditional male role are important evidence of a change. Moreover, Lydia's having gone out that night, rather than sitting around in her apartment, depressed, adds a nice touch, revealing her as independent. She doesn't need to rely on Chinaski for a social life.
If, in Factotum, the women usually initiated relationships, in Women they are even more assertive and not content to play their traditional roles in other ways. This reversal of traditional sexual roles and its ironic effect on the male image appear in the sphere of sexual practices as well. Traditionally, the man has been viewed as the more adventurous, the more willing to experiment, perhaps because he has also been—or at least been seen as—the more experienced. The reason for a woman's supposed lesser interest in sexual variety and experimentation might be that such an interest would suggest more prior sexual experience than society feels comfortable with her having. Here, too, things have changed in Women:
We remained apart a week. Then one afternoon I was over at Lydia's place and we were on her bed, kissing. Lydia pulled away.
"You don't know anything about women, do you?"
"What do you mean?"
"I mean, I can tell by reading your poems and stories that you just don't know anything about women."
"Tell me more."
"Well, I mean for a man to interest me he's got to eat my pussy. Have you ever eaten pussy?"
"You're over 50 years old and you've never eaten pussy?"
"It's too late."
"You can't teach an old dog new tricks."
"Sure you can."
"No, it's too late for you."
"I've always been a slow starter."
Lydia got up and walked into the other room. She came back with a pencil and a piece of paper. "Now, look, I want to show you something." She began to draw carefully on the paper. "Now, this is a cunt, and here is something you probably don't know about—the clit. That's where the feeling is. The clit hides, you see, it comes out now and then, it's pink and very sensitive. Sometimes it will hide from you and you have to find it, you just touch it with the tip of your tongue …"
"O.K.," I said, "I've got it."
Once again Bukowski humorously undermines a traditional image of the male: as aggressive, adventurous, experienced—that is, powerful. The scene is also effective for suggesting one reason for Lydia's attraction to Chinaski, a reason that is in direct contradiction to her statement: "Jeez, I thought you were a man, all your books…." What she has sensed in him is a vulnerability and insecurity vis-à-vis women.
The effect of Bukowski's depiction of women, chauvinist though it can be, is quite different from what his predecessors and contemporaries produced. Although depicting Chinaski as sexist, Bukowski at the same time, and more tellingly, goes to great pains to undermine this position. Indeed, it would be more accurate to characterize Chinaski as "pseudo-macho." In the light of this it is useful to return to the earlier criticisms. Huffzky had written:
In his underground society he describes a purely masculine world, in which women are hardly more than splashes of a puddle through which hardy fellows traipse, mostly drunk, or in which they wallow. Then afterwards: wipe off & away! Also most of the times drunk … almost everything in his head is reduced to the magical actions: fuck, drink, fight: beating women …"
It should be clear by now that this and similar critiques concerning Bukowski's portrayal of women don't do justice to what are really complex texts. It is not a purely masculine world that Bukowski depicts. The women and relationships presented in Women are more than simplistic stereotypes. For example, the women presented almost always have jobs and sometimes have careers. Huffzky is, however, more justified in her criticism that "there are no women in his novels with whom a thoughtful female reader can identify positively." But this must be seen in a larger context. While Huffzky is correct in what she says about the absence of positive women characters (though there are exceptions, such as Laura in Women), what has to be grasped is that there are few characters generally, male or female, with whom an intelligent reader, male or female, can identify. As Bukowski remarked to Sean Penn: "Sure I make women look bad sometimes, but I make men look bad too. I make myself look bad." At times we may identify with certain aspects of Henry Chinaski: his anti-authoritarian stance vis-à-vis bosses and bureaucracy and his self-deprecation and irony are attractive qualities. But those are, especially in Women, only moments. We do not identify with Henry Chinaski in his behavior towards women.
What Bukowski has achieved here is a kind of Brechtian "Verfremdung," the "playing in quotation marks." As Brecht explained in "A Dialogue About Acting":
Oughtn't the actor then try to make the man he is representing understandable? Not so much the man as what takes place. What I mean is: if I choose to see Richard III I don't want to feel myself to be Richard III, but to glimpse this phenomenon in all its strangeness and incomprehensibility.
In Bukowski, the reader's subjectivity has not been captured through empathy but is rather alienated and this facilitates a critical analysis of the protagonist's behavior. Reading Bukowski in this way, without any preconceptions based on a reputation that he has long outgrown, I think we can see him questioning (sometimes, granted, in spite of himself) rather than advocating, the attitudes and behavior with which he has long been (mistakenly) identified.
SOURCE: "Gab Poetry, or Ducks vs. Nightingale Music: Charles Bukowski," in Where the Bee Sucks: Workers, Drones, and Queens of Contemporary American Poetry, Santa Maria: Asylum Arts, 1994, pp. 56-66.
[In the following essay, Peters discusses the elements of Bukowski's poetry.]
I once witnessed a Charles Bukowski first: the debut of the great raunchy poet as actor. The vehicle, The Tenant, was a two character drama written by Linda King. Bukowski contributed lines of his own, better developing his own image in the play. This line was his addition, as delivered by Miss King: "You may be the greatest poet of the century, but you sure can't fuck." In a lively way The Tenant turns upon the problem of whether a super-poet should move in with his girlfriend, who would then, one would suppose, buy him his beer, give him bj's, and let him abuse her. The event was choice. An actor scheduled to read the Bukowski role was unable to show, so Buk took over.
There were twenty people in the well of the Pasadena Museum—sad, alas, because of the significance of the event. Bukowski, script in hand, trod the boards. The props were a telephone—used with nearly as much frequency as Barbara Stanwyck's in Sorry, Wrong Number; a mattress upon which King and Bukowski, scripts in hand, fell to enact their erotic comings after dismal separations. The performance, pixie-ish, included a tender moment where Bukowski acted as W.C. Fields towards a child who had a brief moment of stage glory. Needless to say, the small audience chuckled, particularly over Bukowski's Bogart-like delivery. Ms. King, with various stunning Bridget Bardot-esqueries nicely foiled the poet.
The Tenant gave Bukowski a chance, under the guise of art and aesthetic distance, to extol his stature as a poet. Buk has never been known for his reticence, and his being utterly ignored hitherto by the literary establishment hasn't affected him in the least.
I remember how zapped I was when I first read him: I was teaching at the University of California at Riverside and had been given Crucifix in a Deathhand. I carried the book to a string quartet concert, began reading it before the concert, experienced chills, elevations, charismatic flashes, barber pole exaltations, and fevers in the groin. I had not read such poems since discovering Dylan Thomas in the fifties. Here was something awe-thentic at last! I nudged my companion who thought I was crazy. Bukowski was unafraid of life's terror meat-slabs, and he made the angels sing.
I began to ask others if they had heard of Bukowski. Yes, he was living in a Hollywood dump, they said, dismissing him as a charlatan steeped in booze, flop-gutted, and rancid-breathed. I gave up trying to explain his impact on me. Moreover, I didn't care whether he rolled in his own puke, or swallowed pints of maiden juice. He was a super poet. His example loosened my own writing. Lowell, Snodgrass, Wilbur, Ashbery, and Olson were dilettantes.
One afternoon, carrying a six-pack of Coors, I beat my way to Buk's door, four or five days before Christmas. He and his daughter were trimming a tree. There weren't many ornaments—half a dozen on the low branches. Bukowski asked me in. I found a man of charm—nothing of the horrible-retchable I had been led to expect. I have been a fan ever since. He, though, remembers the visit otherwise, and wrote about it in his collection Beneath the Fortinaria.
The appearance of Burning in Water Drowning in Flame: Selected Poems 1955–1973 invites me to describe what I found so telling in his work and to point up what I find are unfortunate recent drifts. My remarks should dissolve some of the celebrity aura threatening his reputation. It Catches My Heart in Its Hands (1963) and Crucifix in a Deathhand (1965), two Loujon Press books, are among the dozen most beautifully printed and designed books of poetry ever. Since they are out of print, and rare, it is great to have those reprinted.
"The tragedy of the leaves" propels us into Bukowski's world: hangover, desertion by his woman, the screaming landlady, and a world that's failed him utterly. Set up for the big blubbery whine of self-pity? No! He transmutes all raunchy conditions through unusual images: "I awakened to dryness and the ferns were dead, / the potted plants yellow as corn…." How well dryness echoes awakened; the latter implies a grappling with the world, moving toward insight. Compression follows:
my woman was gone and the empty bottles like bled corpses surrounded me with their uselessness….
The long vowel sounds are well-spaced, and Bukowski, sensing the positive, remarks on the sunlight brightening the landlady's note in its "fine and / undemanding yellowness." The occasion, he observes, demands "a good comedian, ancient style, a jester/ with jokes upon absurd pain." There's wisdom here: "pain is absurd / because it exists, nothing more." He believes that as a poet he is stagnant: "that's the tragedy of the dead plants." In this concluding passage note the effective slant rhymes more and razor and the repeated dead, dead, dark, and stood accompanying some monosyllabic tough nouns, Execrating, waving, and screaming, mesh, as hall, final, hell, and failed weave subtle echoes. Here he manages to be tender towards a harsh landlady:
and I walked into a dark hall where the landlady stood execrating and final, sending me to hell, waving her fat, sweaty arms and screaming screaming for rent because the world had failed us both.
Empathy is present in other poems. "For marilyn m." avoids sentimentality through a diction suited to the fey person Monroe was:
… and we will forget you, somewhat and it is not kind but real bodies are nearer and as the worms pant for your bones, I would so like to tell you that this happens to bears and elephants to tyrants and heroes and ants and frogs, still, you brought us something, some type of small victory, and for this I say: good and let us grieve no more….
"The life of Borodin," grandly empathetic, is effective reportage on the miserable composer's life. Wife-hounded, he slept by placing a dark cloth over his eyes. His wife lined cat boxes and covered jars of sour milk with his compositions. Nothing is overstated in this taut free-verse poem. The parallels between Bukowski's life and Borodin's are implicit.
"The twins" evokes another tremulous situation, one that a lesser poet might easily have wrecked. Here Bukowski confronts his hatred of his father, immediately after the father's death: "A father is always your master even when he's gone." To cope, the poet moves through the house stunned, then proceeds outside where he picks an orange and peels it. Common day noises of dogs and neighbors bespeak sanity. Back inside, the poet dons one of his father's suits:
I try on a light blue suit much better than anything I have ever worn and I flap the arms like a scarecrow in the wind but it's no good; I can't keep him alive no matter how much we hated each other. we looked exactly alike, we could have been twins the old man and I: that's what they said. he had his bulbs on the screen ready for planting while I was lying with a whore from 3rd street. very well. grant us this moment: standing before a mirror in my dead father's suit waiting also to die.
The event is stark. To wear another person's clothes is, in a sense, to become that person. Bukowski's mimicry of death as scarecrow is macabre. Despite the hate, the survivor can't bring the dead man back to life.
"Old poet" treats Bukowski's distaste for aging (forty-two at the time) without a public to love his work. Finding his sexual energies diminished, he's reduced to pawing dirty pictures. He's had too much beer and has heard too much Shostakovitch. He swats "a razzing fly" and "ho, I fall heavy as thunder …" The downstairs tenants will assume "he's either drunk or dying." Despite his depression, every morning he packs off envelopes of poems, hoping to place them in magazines. Rejection slips annoy him briefly; but soon he's back at his typewriter:
the editors wish to thank you for submitting but regret … down down down the dark hall into a womanless hall to peel a last egg and sit down to the keys: click click a click, over the television sounds over the sounds of springs, click click a click: another old poet going off.
"View from the screen" might easily have dissolved into narcissism; it has all the accoutrements. It shouldn't work, but it does. The death-whispers of the heron and the bone-thoughts of sea creatures dominate his universe as the poet crosses the room:
to the last wall the last window the last pink sun with its arms around the world with its arms around me….
The sun is benign. Its pinkness produces the pig-image, an unusual trope and one that eschews turning maudlin. The Platonic cave motif is obvious:
I hear the death-whisper of the heron the bone-thoughts of sea-things that are almost rock; this screen caved like a soul and scrawled with flies, my tensions and damnations are those of a pig, pink sun pink sun I hate your holiness crawling your gilded cross of life as my fingers and feet and face come down to this….
Writing, for Bukowski, is for getting "feelings down." Now, that may sound like warmed-over Shelley. Bukowski's urge to write, prompted by a mix of sardonicism and angst, is as natural as defecation. An image allows him to translate pain into a testimony for his spirit, one fraught with "madness and terror" along "agony way." There's a time-bomb inside his chest, and if it doesn't go off as a poem it will explode in drunkenness, despair, vomiting, or rage. As long as he writes he leashes terror. "Beans with garlic" is about this. A terrific idea—beans as lovers! Beans as your words! Stirring them is like writing poems:
but now there's a ticking under your shirt and you whirl the beans with a spoon, one love dead, one love departed another love … ah! as many loves as beans yes, count them now sad, sad your feelings boiling over flame, get this down.
"A nice day" deals with a knife the speaker carries inside him. Bukowski can't feel doom, so he goes outside "to absolutely nothing / a square round of orange zero." A woman says good morning, thereby twisting the knife:
I do notice though the sun is shining that the flowers are pulled up on their strings and I on mine: belly, bellybutton, buttocks, bukowski waving walking teeth of ice with the taste of tar tear ducts propagandized shoes acting like shoes I arrive on time in the blazing midday of mourning.
The concluding pun is effective, and the lines are original. Bukowski produces (invents) his rhetoric, and this sometimes betrays him. Often, his latest voice, in the gab barfly manner, sounds like imitation Bukowski. His best poems discharge energy. We are touched by a vital creative mind prizing the creative act. Nothing, not even bad booze, can diminish it. Call this originality; for, to paraphrase T.S. Eliot on Tennyson, Bukowski has originality in abundance.
In At Terror Street and Agony Way (1968) there is evidence of deterioration. Bukowski's paranoia intensifies. He's nastier than he's hitherto been. His sympathies are with outrageous, destructive folks: the guy who emasculates himself with a tin can; "the nice guy" who cuts up a woman and sends the parts to people. Bukowski senses that a sycophantic public expects outrageous cartwheels and titillations, and he obliges. There is a discernible drifting off from the earlier tender humanity. And there is a troublesome loquaciousness; the honed work of the early manner is usurped by rambling, grotty passages of prose masquerading (chopped into lengths) as poetry. And he is vicious to other poets, as he is in a parody of Michael McClure and in a tasteless piece on Jack Hirschman as narcissist Victor Vania.
"Sunday before noon," though it concludes with a funny piece of hysteria, reflects Bukowski's current narcissism:
going down are the clocks cocks roosters? the roosters stand on the fence the roosters are peanutbutter crowing, the FLAME will be high, the flame will be big, kiss kiss kiss everything away, I hope it rains today, I hope the jets die, I hope the kitten finds a mouse, I hope I don't see it, I hope it rains, I hope anything away from here, I hope a bridge, a fish, a cactus somewhere strutting whiskers to the noon, I dream flowers and horses the branches break the birds fall the buildings burn, my whore walks across the room and smiles at me.
There's evidence of the old originality here in the juxtaposition of peanut butter and roosters, and in the branches and birds, and in the buildings that open the poem and close it. But the stance, the narcissism of "going down," the wish to be wiped out, and to wipe out, is dull. There isn't much in life now (petulance) worth grappling for. There's a nagging tone as Bukowski slips towards the next binge:
and I got out of bed and yawned and scratched my belly and knew that soon very soon I would have to get very drunk again.
Isolating soon and again with extra spaces emphasizes the sterility of the writing. Ditto for the repetition of very. Bukowski now cracks wise with editors who reject his poems. He becomes a rhino-skinned poet s. o. b.:
when a chicken catches its worm the chicken gets through and when the worm catches you (dead or alive) I'd have to say, … that it enjoys it. it's like when you send this poem back I'll figure it just didn't get through. either there were fatter worms or the chicken couldn't see. the next time I break an egg I'll think of you. scramble with fork and then turn up the flame if I have one.
This poem has an attractive petulance, and the motif of chicken, worm, egg, is original. Also the minimalist lines work well. Yet, Bukowski drifts into cuteness; the starch in the initial images is smothered under narcissism.
Particularly off-putting is Bukowski's obsession with fame. In "The difference between a bad poet and a good one is luck," he regales us with his life in Philadelphia when he was broke, trying to write, and waiting for the ultimate handout to enable him to sit around "drinking wine on credit and watching the hot pigeons suffer and fuck." He hops a train to Texas, and busted for vagrancy, is dumped off in the next town where he meets a woman who gives him so many teeth marks he thinks he'll get cancer. In prime macho fashion, he greets a bunch of his mistress' cowboy friends:
I had on a pair of old bluejeans, and they said oh, you're a writer, eh? and I said: well, some think so. and some still think so … others, of course, haven't wised up yet. two weeks later they ran me out of town.
He seems wistfully amused that trash men busy about their work don't know that he, Great Poet, is alive—a thought held, I would guess, by all great men who snicker in their martinis: "Oh, if they only knew how near to greatness they are banging those trash cans down there …" In "Lost" Bukowski waxes philosophical in the manner of a hip-Merwin. The Big Conclusion? "We can't win it." Who's surprised? "Just for awhile," folks, "we thought we could." This Life Significance Statement serves up duck-music as distinct from nightingale music. The loquaciousness is typical of his recent poetry. I call it gab poetry. The gab poem is related to Chaucer's fabliaux. Obscenities are sexual: a husband shoves a hot iron rod up his wife's lover's anus whilst the lover is taking a crap out her boudoir window; an old husband's young wife is being swyved in a tree just out of eyeshot of the old fart, standing amidst the flowers.
"Hot" is a good example of gab poetry. The speaker's been working at the post office, see, on a night pickup run. He knows Miriam the delicious whore is at home waiting for him, deadline 8 p.m. At the last pickup the truck stalls. Miriam is waiting. Speaker arrives late to find Miriam gone. She's left a note propped against his pillow, addressed to "son of bitch." The note is held in place by a purple teddy bear. Speaker gives the bear (heh heh) a drink and has one himself, the poem is prose cut up into boozy breath-groups. Nothing much poetically catches the ear—this is in a sense a one-shot (as in bourbon) piece.
Some poems, like "Burn and burn and burn," set in bars, exude an easy cynicism. Petulance accompanies the "vomiting into plugged toilets / in rented rooms full of roaches and mice":
well, I suppose the days were made to be wasted the years and the loves were made to be wasted
Instead of the Victorian Ernest Dowson's roses and lilies of rapture (and vice), vomit and plugged toilets cram Buk's wasted days.
Perhaps, if we persist, we'll find the secret of life tucked inside a plastic envelope inside a box of Bukowski Creepy-Crawly, Vomit, Crunch Cereal. Jesus Christ, says Buk, "should have laughed on the cross." There's a secret here somewhere. When Bukowski equates himself with Christ, he's maudlin:
out of the arms of one love and into the arms of another I have been saved from dying on the cross by a lady who smokes pot writes songs and stories. and is much kinder than the last, much much kinder, and the sex is just as good or better. it isn't pleasant to be put on the cross and left there, it is much more pleasant to forget a love which didn't work as all love finally doesn't work….
Beautiful people, says Bukowski, "don't make it … they die in flame … they commit suicide …" They "are found at the edge of a room / crumpled into spiders and needles and silence." They "die young / and leave the ugly to their ugly lives …"
One superb new poem, "the catch," is as good as any Bukowski has written. Guesses are that a strange fish is a Hollow-Back June whale, a Billow-Wind sand-groper, or a Fandango Espadrille with stripes. Folks don't agree. They examine the creature; it's "grey and covered with hair / and fat." It stinks like "old socks." Joyously, the creature promenades along the pier chomping hot dogs, riding the merry-go-round, and hopping a pony. It falls into the dust. "Grop, grop," it goes. Followed by a crowd, it returns to the pier where it falls backwards and thrashes about. Somebody pours beer over its head. "Grop, grop." It dies, and people roll it into the ocean and argue further over its name.
Charles Bukowski is an easy poet to love, fear, and hate. He develops personal legends as dude, boozer, and womanizer. And he can be winsome, almost childlike. By stressing his personality I perhaps short change his poetry. It shouldn't matter that he vomits a lot, gets laid less often than he'd like, that seventy-seven new poems appeared in little magazines this year, or that he's Black Sparrow's leading commodity. Many readers prefer his fiction to his verse. The latter, I think, even with the flaws, remains a more durable art than his prose.
SOURCE: A review of The Bukowski/Purdy Letters, A Decade of Dialogue, in American Book Review, Vol. 16, No. 6, March/May 1995, pp. 17-18.
[Sward offers a short, favorable review, including some excerpts from the letters between Al Purdy and Bukowski.]
In 1964, Canadian poet Al Purdy (author of The Stone Bird; Sex And Death; etc.) discovered and reviewed Charles Bukowski's It Catches My Heart In Its Hands for Evidence Magazine. Purdy mailed a copy of his review to Bukowski who responded with a letter and the correspondence that gave rise to The Bukowski/Purdy Letters, A Decade Of Dialogue was underway.
What was in it for Bukowski?
"Getting a letter from Purdy always got my day up off the floor. I found my life more than unappealing and his letters lent a steadiness, some hope, and some hardrock wisdom," wrote Bukowski in the book's Preface. "I wrote letters to many in those days, it was rather my way of screaming from my cage. It helped, that and the gambling, the drinking, the paintings, the poems and the short stories."
Purdy, in his Foreword to this handsomely designed Paget Press book, describes himself as "a pretty callow 45-year-old … with too much ego and too little talent." Purdy is by turns modest, boastful, belligerent, charming, supportive—as only a friend can be—of Bukowski's numerous ups and downs, and not at all reticent about expressing his opinions. Purdy says, for example, that the best American poets of all time are Charles Bukowski, Robinson Jeffers, and Emily Dickinson. He is unimpressed by Walt Whitman who, he says, makes him sick to his stomach. But he admires James Dickey, e.e. cummings, Ramon Guthrie and Elizabeth Bishop, poets who, Purdy says, "wrote a few poems," though they are not of the "top level."
The letters are anything but mealy mouthed and devious. Bukowski and Purdy alike delight in a cheery, take no shit-from-anybody attitude. Writing about the Black Mountain poets, who continue to be greatly esteemed in Canada, Al Purdy has this to say.
I don't like the togetherness let's everybody pat each other of the Duncan-Creeley-Olson bunch. And I don't like their so-called poems either. And I don't like the holy attitude noli me tangere (whatever that means) of their awed disciples.
Bukowski, for his part, says little about other poets. However, he comes through loud and clear in other ways:
I live in a whorehouse district of east Hollywood. I was walking down the street today when one of the girls in a love parlor hollared, 'Hey, come on in!' I didn't even blush, man."
I sit here at my small kitchen table, after shooting my mouth all night in order not to have to listen to the other workers, and the half pint of Cutty Sark is about gone and only 4 or 5 bottles of beer left, and soon the sun will be making it in with its mockery. Somebody sent me a roundtrip ticket to Santa Fe, and I might as well go down there for a couple of days.
Drunk again … fuck guilt …
If you like reading other peoples' mail and have a taste for Bukowski, The Bukowski/Purdy Letters are for you.
I've been reading Purdy for the last twenty years. What's his take on this exchange?
"This Buk-Purdy thing was a private correspondence, which neither of us expected to see in public, gossiping away like a dumb loudspeaker. I do confess, it makes me a little morose, the way I don't feel when I have lost myself in poems," says the Canadian who concludes his Foreword with the words: "I hope nobody likes me for it, but someone might be slightly interested."
Well, this reader likes him for it. I like in particular the sense I get of Purdy's warmth, humor, generosity and his capacity for friendship.
Imagine, two poets who never met actually writing one another, helping one another and sustaining a friendship for over twenty years!
Ameliasburgh, Ontario's Al Purdy and California-based Charles Bukowski had much in common. Exuberant, antiacademic, prolific, scarred heavyweights, survivors, veterans of innumerable brawls, literary and not-so literary. Yes, both shared an appetite and burly love for strong drink and women. And both assumed in their poems the stance of the poet as tough guy and played the part convincingly. Both shared a suspicion of nondrinkers, critics and academics. Lovers of women, both spoke of womankind in terms that might likely offend one-half the human race.
"I suppose I've been through the mill as you mention," wrote Purdy. "I've ridden the freights, been in jail a few times, done a fair amount of fucking, been unwise, silly, foolish, cowardly, braggardly, loud, etc.—a character of excess in most ways."
What did they say about one another's work?
"I'm very like you in poems in many ways, and very unlike you in others. My so-called world-view is close to yours, tho at the same time has variations. But yours is only what I see in poems. Tho I think that must be, has to be, authentic."
Can you guess who wrote the above? A free copy of the Paget Press book to those who guess correctly.
The answer is Canada's Purdy who, by the way, comes across as more analytical, more self-conscious and oddly more "stable" than Bukowski who, from the nature of his ailments and complaints, sounds as if he were more often than not in pain and, therefore, in need of his friend's humorous advice and merry, if not raucous, consolation.
If you're looking for a rough and ready view of the 1960's and early 70's as experienced by Charles Bukowski and his Canadian counterpart, check out The Bukowski/Purdy Letters.
SOURCE: A review of Pulp, in World Literature Today, Autumn 1995, pp. 791-92.
[Nericcio favorably reviews Pulp, citing a poetic essence to the novel that complements and transcends the genre it emulates.]
"It was a hellish hot day and the air conditioner was broken. A fly crawled across the top of my desk. I reached out with the open palm of my hand and sent him out of the game." These lines are from the opening page of Pulp, the posthumous "last" novel by our singular American troubadour of the down-and-out. Charles Bukowski, and his words here encapsulate nicely his general concern in this novel with death. With "Lady Death," to be more specific, and to disclose also the largely allegorical structuring of the piece. With Bukowski's own recent death, it takes the reader some work to get past seeing chief protagonist Nick Belane, private dick, as a loosely sealed surrogate for the late Bukowski himself. "a loser, a dick who couldn't solve anything." Bukowski was known for taking self-deprecation to new heights: not for nothing is Pulp dedicated to "bad writing." Not that he did not respect his works—he did, but he did not take them so seriously that he imagined himself the grand artist. Delusions like that might get in the way of a good drink.
Pulp is "pulp fiction" with a twist. As with Quentin Tarantino's movie Pulp Fiction, the novel Pulp is as much a modest example of the genre's tawdry domain as a knowing reflection upon its obsessions. In Bukowski's pages grimy, dark potboiler meets an allegory on authoring: picture here the bastard singular issue of Mickey Spillane and Laurence Sterne, and you get a sense of Bukowski's scheme. In the end our gutter-friendly scribe hands us a "meta-pulp." This is Hammett and Chandler retooled by a Quixote-era Cervantes—a bowery Borges or skid-row Pynchon. Or, shifting medium. Pulp is a painting by René Magritte or Remedios Varo—on black velvet. For example, Bukowski has the private-eye patois down pat. Belane: "A dick without a gat is like a tomcat with a rubber. Or like a clock without hands." But there is a manipulative, knowing narratological savvy also in the response by the detective's antagonist. McKelvey: "Belane … you talk goofy."
Pulp's plot line merits recording: a shadowy figure called Lady Death hires Nick Belane ("Mr. Slow Death" to his bookie) to find a guy named Celine—yes, that Celine. Ms. Death tells Belane that Celine's been hanging around Red's bookstore … asking about Faulkner, McCullers [and] Charles Manson." Bukowski's Celine is a paranoid boor and gets the novel's best lines: on Thomas Mann, "This fellow has a problem … he considers boredom an Art"; on the New Yorker, "One problem there … they just don't know how to write"; and on writers (while fondling a signed copy of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying). "In the old days … writers' lives were more interesting than their writing. Now-a-days neither the lives nor the writing is interesting." Wit notwith-standing, Celine meets his maker soon after, again, leaving Belane free to pursue other related cases, which include space-alien bombshells, whores, bars, and red sparrows. As might be expected, Bukowski's "pulp" women are worshiped and shat upon by turns. Belane's threat here to an adulteress named Cindy Bass is typical: "You bitch … I'll nail your ass … against the wall."
As the novel muses upon death, salient and somewhat predictable reflections on Identity appear, but they are neither winded nor sour with age. Bukowski's lines are "Sartre" filtered through a pulp vein: "Was Celine Celine or was he somebody else? Sometimes I felt that I didn't even know who I was. All right, I'm Nicky Belane. But check this. Somebody could well out Hey … Harry Martell' and I'd most likely answer, 'Yeah, what is it? I mean. I could be anybody, what does it matter?"
Bukowski accomplishes other feats with this slight novel, filled as it is with brief tips of the hat to Bukowski's life-long loves: masturbation, "loose" women, bar fights, and booze—lots of booze. Authors too are duly noted. Celine, mentioned above, comes out well. In addition, two thugs sent to rough up Belane early on are named "Dante" and "Fante"—a salute to Italian maestro Dante Alighieri and Italian-American writer John Fante, writers divided by centuries and region who shared Bukowski's attentive eye for spiritual darkness.
The novel has its highs and lows. "I checked my desk for the luger. It was there, pretty as a picture. A nude one." As you can see, Bukowski is not always subtle. On the whole, however, his staccato prose matches the novel's spare range, yielding a minimalist homage: "It was dark in there. The tv was off. The bartender was an oily guy, looked to be 80, all white, white hair, white skin, white lips. Two other guys sat there, chalk white…. No drinks were showing. Everybody was motionless. A white stillness." With few words, Bukowski charts the singular contours of an eccentric cast. His neighbor the mailman, is typical: "His arms hung kind of funny. His mind too." Here readers will find less the labyrinthine literary terrain of G. K. Chesterton and more the moist, fouled corridor of Nathanael West's fiction.
Rhetorically speaking, I eschew ending reviews with loaded quotations drenched with pathos, but given Bukowski's recent exit, it seems worth forgoing any expository fastidiousness here. Nick Belane's reverie is fitting epitaph to Charles Bukowski the man and his fine last novel: "All in all, I had pretty much done what I had set out to do in life. I had made some good moves. I wasn't sleeping in the streets at night. Of course, there were a lot of good people sleeping in the streets. They weren't fools, they just didn't fit into the needed machinery of the moment."