Beer Sodden Part II (Professional Class): The Mystery of Charles Bukowski


Run with the Hunted: A Charles Bukowski Reader by Charles Bukowski.  HarperPerennial.  512 pp.  $16.99.

In the midst of making my way through the novels of Marilynne Robinson, heavy with the taint of Midwestern Protestantism (I enjoyed those books, I really did.  Sometimes I wanted to throw them on the floor and stomp on them, but I enjoyed them), I felt the need for an antidote, something that would get me away from the ponderous theological discussions and the preoccupation with sin.  I might have read Henry Miller, I suppose, or my old pal Jim Harrison.  But why not go all the way?  Why not read the man who is as far from Marilynne Robinson as an author can get?  Charles Bukowski.

I began reading Buk (as I prefer to think of him) back in the eighties when a friend recommended a novel with the irresistible title Women (he had given it to a woman friend of his, who read a few pages and gave it right back).  I moved on to Post Office (the absolutely dreadful site of Buk’s longest years of employment), Factotum, Ham on Rye.  I read several story collections.  I even, God help us all, read a fair amount of the poetry, though I barely scratched the surface.  I loved the movie Barfly, which I saw with my then teenage son.  I read Bukowski’s novelized version of that experience, entitled Hollywood.  At some point I reviewed him somewhere or other.  I must have reviewed Run with the Hunted, because my copy has a number of underlinings, and can’t think of any other reason to underline Bukowski.  Any number of times in a bookstore, when I’m bored and can’t find anything that interests me, I drift over and read for a while from one of his poetry books.  That always cheers me up.

There is no one like Bukowski (people bring up John Fante, who was apparently a major influence, but Fante doesn’t have his hard edges).   He seemed to yank his fiction straight out of life; the character Hank Chinaski is quite obviously Charles Bukowski with a different spelling.  He wrote about a life, and a kind of person, that  no one else writes about, at least not from the inside, the people who live in boarding houses and flophouses (that’s when they’re doing well), who work shit jobs, inhabit crummy bars, go to the racetrack.  There are many such people in the world, but they figure little in our literature.

Bukowski’s own story is remarkable, would be remarkably sad if he hadn’t made it hilarious.  He grew up with a horribly abusive father, who treated him like dirt and beat him with a strap.  He endured a dreadful case of acne vulgaris all over his body, which required years of painful treatments; the scars showed on his face for years.  He discovered alcohol as a young man, and though it was a mixed blessing in his life, he immediately thought, “I have found something that is going to help me, for a long long time to come.”  He ran away from home, spent years drifting around working crummy jobs and living in lousy places.  He read widely at the public library, began writing in his twenties, gave it up for years (or maybe just gave up trying to publish), finally got started again with a flurry of short pieces, didn’t publish much until he was 40, didn’t publish a novel until he was 50, was finally able to establish a career because he  met a man who believed in him so much that he gave him a small stipend and founded a publishing house to publish his work (John Martin at Black Sparrow).  After that he published whatever he wanted.

He was an unrepentant alcoholic, fucked every woman he could get his hands on (and seemed to get his hands on a great many, despite the fact that his face remained scarred and he must have reeked of alcohol, cigars, cigarettes, God knows what else), haunted the racetrack and at one point formulated a plan to earn a living by betting (was there anything he wasn’t addicted to?).  Despite all that, he wrote scores of poems and stories, published five novels, and had a substantial following.  In one of his novels, he describes running into a bunch of his fans at a bar somewhere, and they start screaming things at him, as if he’s a rock star.

“’Chinaski.  Chinaski . . . Motherfuck . . . I’ve read all your books, ALL YOUR BOOKS! . . . I can kick your ass, Chinaski . . . Hey, Chinaski, can you still get it up? . . . Chinaski, Chinaski, can I read you one of my poems?’”

What he did sounds easy in a way, just sit down and write incidents from his life.  If it’s so easy, just try it.  Make it interesting while you’re at it.  Bukowski’s poetry seems so much the stuff of life that it isn’t even poetry, and I think you could argue it isn’t, that true poets ignore it.  Why, then, is it so fascinating?  People read it who read no other poets.

I think Bukowski’s work fascinates just because it is the stuff of life.  It has the same fascination as reality, though of course no work of art can touch the wonder of everyday reality.  He also attracts readers because his characters are such drunken barfighters gamblers whorefuckers and streetbums.  However badly we may have fucked up in life, we didn’t fuck up this badly.  It’s also just funny.  A lot of it is very funny.  There’s something endearing about the whole enterprise.

Men wonder how Bukowski got so many women (though they weren’t all prizes, if the photographs are any clue.  He may not have had terribly high standards).  In my limited experience, women like it when men are just who they are.  They like men who like women, and Bukowski qualifies on that score.  They like men who pay attention to them.   And then there is this exchange with one of his girlfriends, which I assume comes from life.

“’You’re all there,’ she said.  ‘What do you mean?’  ‘I mean, I never met a man like you.’  ‘Oh yeah?’  ‘The others are only ten per cent there or twenty per cent, you’re all there, all of you is very there, it’s so different.’  ‘I don’t know anything about it.’”

The man survived a dreadful childhood and youth, years when he couldn’t get published and worked crummy jobs, addiction to everything you can be addicted to, barfights and crazy women.  He should have wound up dead in a gutter at age 38, but he lived to be 73 and died of leukemia, was widely read, loved classical music and listened to it on the radio all his life, produced a huge shelf of literature.

At the end of his life, when he’d undergone chemo and had finally given up smoking and drinking, it is reported on his website that for several weeks he went two or three times a week to a Transcendental Meditation Temple.  What was that all about?

I was once wandering around Boston looking for a movie theater and found the Charles Bukowski Bar.  You can bet I came back with my wife and had a beer.

On his gravestone is inscribed the saying—which he apparently lived by—“Don’t try.”  I think he was referring to his method of composition, just letting things bubble up from the subconscious, but also the way he lived his life, something he discovered in that childhood and youth that sound like a chapter out of Book of Job.  Edward Slingerland recently wrote a book on Chinese intellectual history Trying Not to Try (which I hope to report on soon); Buk didn’t try not to try; he really didn’t try.  He was a Chinese sage.

He even kind of looked like one.