WINE, WOMEN AND WORK: The World of Charles Bukowski
Man's Condition. Inconstancy, boredom, anxiety. (Pascal:
From the beginning I had all the qualifications for the
occupation of author: obscurity penury and, I hoped, honesty, to which I could
add ill hap, for he who is not enticed by the siren, misfortune, is a poltroon.
(Edward Dahlberg: Confessions)
An intellectual is a man who says a simple thing in a
difficult way; an artist is man who says a difficult thing in a simple way.
(Charles Bukowski: Notes of a dirty old man)
Charles Bukowski was born in Andernach, Germany in 1920,
emigrating with his parents to the USA at the age of two. He grew up in Los
Angeles and now lives in San Pedro, California. Like Jack Kerouac and Henry
Miller, he is a prolific, ribald and uneven; like them Bukowski has been much
maligned and recognition has been long delayed, but he is now widely translated
if not influential. Also like Kerouac and Miller, he continues to be anathema to
the British literary establishment. Bukowski has German ancestry in common with
Miller, but there the similarities cease. Bukowski rarely gets sloppy, verbose
or pretentious as both Miller and Kerouac could become — at least not in his
prose work, which is, with the recent welcome publication in England of three
Bukowski novels, POST OFFICE, FACTOTUM, and WOMEN, what I want to discuss.
His novels, like his excellent short stories, grip the reader
from the opening paragraph. Bukowski never indulges in purple passages or very
detailed descriptions. He avoids unnecessary adjectives, reflective pauses,
streams of consciousness. His episodic, freewheeling narratives are absolutely
direct and unadorned and move at a terrific pace. His world is the urban jungle,
his customary haunts racetracks, bars, seedy lodgings and restaurants: within
these locales encounters, whether conversational or physical, usually display a
curious combination of sardonic hostility and anarchic hilarity that Bukowski
has forged into his own inimitable style. 'Forged' is the operative word, for
let no one be deceived: Bukowski is by no means the artless, aimless,
anti-Literary writer he might appear on a careless first reading. This sort of
pared-down, fast-moving writing is difficult to achieve and very far from being
naif, while the alter ego or literary persona of the drunken priapic wild
man Henry Chinaski, streetwise yet sensitive, losing more than winning, but
always, always surviving, is a memorable creation whether wholly fictional or
utterly autobiographical. In Bukowski such basically irrelevant distinctions are
blurred, all is grist to his mill, all fit for literature: indeed, as he writes
in WOMEN: "Fiction is an improvement on life"
We infer from sporadic asides throughout his work that he has
read and admired Dostoevsky, Celine, Kafka and Knut Hamsun — with all of whom he
has affinities; that sentimentality and fake heroics don't impress him, and that
although he himself has been compared to one particular over-rated Nobelwinner,
to Bukowski being honest is more important than being Ernest.
One warms to Bukowski, too, when he makes statements like
"outside of Dreiser, T. Wolfe was the worst American writer ever born." But the
game of comparisons and influences can only provide occasional clues: in the
space available I want to assure potential readers of Bukowski that he is not
the illiterate macho Caliban or tedious oafish cocksman some critics would have
us dismiss, but a serious writer who is also scathingly and outrageously funny.
He himself is aware of the latter paradox and makes much of it, shamelessly
switching from humour to horror, from ferocity to farce, as swiftly as he
changes jobs in FACTOTUM and women in WOMEN. This said, let's look at the
earliest and perhaps most tightly constructed of these three novels, POST
Written in a series of short, numbered segments, many of them
self-contained anecdotes, POST OFFICE presents a gallery of neurotics, nymphos,
lushes, loonies and losers — the sweaty smelly groin of an American big city.
What happens? Henry Chinaski works several years for the LA Post Office, leaves,
marries Joyce a rich nympho and then, partly to escape her, partly through
pressure from her hostile family and partly because she insists on his 'proving
himself’, he rejoins the PO, whereupon Joyce promptly divorces him. What else?
His alcoholic commonlaw wife Betty dies. He finds, so he thinks, a good woman,
who actually sets him up for a knifing before Chinaski turns the tables on her
and her pimp. He has a daughter by an ageing wouldbe writer, Fay, who leaves him
for a hippie commune in New Mexico. He gets dizzy spells, resigns aged almost
fifty, wakes up to a hangover and decides to write POST OFFICE. The books spans
eleven years in its 160 pages, and this telescoping of time, together with the
wild bawdy, the fast wisecracks, and especially the crazed anarchic logic and
the dreamlike physical and verbal aggression (perhaps in part a legacy from
Kafka and Celine as mentioned) are all expertly blended by Bukowski into what
we'll come to recognize as his own very personal voice. Unromantic, wry and
rapid, Bukowski can often be tersely memorable:
"her mouth flicked in and out of my mouth like a tiny lost
snake" or "Courage comes from the belly — all else is desperation".
He also has compassion and a working knowledge of the
varieties of loneliness he describes:
"We drank a little longer and then we went to bed, but it
wasn't the same, it never is — there was space between us, things had happened.
I watched her walk to the bathroom, saw the wrinkles and folds under the cheeks
of her ass. Poor thing, poor poor thing. Joyce had been firm and hard — you
grabbed a handful and it felt good. Betty didn't feel so good. It was sad, it
was sad, it was sad. 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."
The alcoholic melancholy of the occasion, a failed reunion,
with the seemingly clumsy, half-bewildered repetitions in fact subtly
emphasising the awkwardness of loss itself, is even more impressive in context.
Bukowski like most good writers must be read in copious draughts, not merely
sipped. And his Chinaski may be a wise guy but he's an innocent too; "I couldn't
help thinking, god, all these mailmen do is drop in their letters and get laid.
This is the job for me, oh yes yes yes." However, both male-men and mailman are
confounded: nothing quite turns out as expected, and whether Chinaski’s running
battles with individual or organizational lunancy are won or lost, the result is
hardbitten, racy and entertaining. Bukowski gives this clever little existential
fable for our time the irresistible sharp edge of a good thriller.
FACTOTUM starts with wanderer-outcast Chinaski arriving in
New Orleans, avoiding another of those sexual invitations too casual to be
anything but a pimp's ambush for the unwary. Chinaski is looking for rooms and
work, and in this novel the sheer banality, the general pointlessness of most
work is stressed. The NewYork Times has compared Bukowski to George Orwell, but
Bukowski never goes slumming, never patronizes the working classes, working or
idling, and never assumes the intellectual's self-conscious air of 'detached
reportage on Bohemian low Life’ or any such clichéd over-simplification.
Bukowski takes the life as he finds it — and on the whole doesn't much like it.
In FACTOTUM Chinaski is much younger than in POST OFFICE: the
period is the early Forties. There’s less of a 'plot’ than in the earlier book
and more wandering: New Orleans, Philadelphia, St Louis... Then Chinaski reaches
LA where the main action is set. He moves to Miami returns to LA, and the story
ends as it began, as if in mid-air, this time with the protagonist watching a
burlesque show — a situation perhaps symbolic of much, or of nothing at all.
Bukowski is well aware of the transience of life (and the
pulsing style of his books seems to reflect this awareness), but he never
moralizes or romanticizes. "The myth of the starving artist was a hoax", he
declares, and Chinaski doesn't kid himself either about the temporary hence
imperfect nature of his pet escape-route and panacea: "When you drank the world
was still out there, but for the moment it didn't have you by the throat,"
Descriptions of the wino life abound — and would encourage few converts, to say
the least. Gambling too is as uncertain and unsatisfactory in the long run as
that other wouldbe pleasurable escape from the meaningless grind of routine —
sex. And sex itself can become a meaningless grind: Bukowski’s sexual
descriptions are accurate, forthright and therefore 'shocking'. They're also
full of grim humour: horrific accounts of being (half-unwillingly) fellated by
an ageing whore, or of the ravages of and remedies for crabs. Why read such
things? Believe it or not, Bukowski describes the wincing, awful, pathetic
absurdity of human existence with such gusto and relish that he makes you laugh
out loud. He may laugh from the lower depths out of bravado and you may laugh
perhaps from relief at not being there — but the net result is anyhow tonic not
We follow Chinaski's wretched progress as he puts up subway
posters, works in a dogbiscuit factory, cleans windows, slaves away as a
shipping clerk, in a clothing store, assorted warehouses, a bakery, hotels, as a
lavatory attendant, and so on. He indulges in some petty thieving and
optimistically sends stories to magazines. Other than that — gambling, drink and
sex - the Holy Trinity of the exploited...
Chinaski is always in trouble with Authority, has no real
friends and when out of desperation he does return to his parents' house it
certainly isn't home: "I knew that my father would charge me atrocious prices
for room, board and laundry and that he would also be careful to list me as a
dependent on his income tax return" His father promptly taxes the prodigal with
pious platitudes like "any man who wants work can find work", and father, mother
and son end up, literally, fighting! T. Wolfe or no, you can't go home again...
So much for meaningful personal relationships.
As for the larger social issues, they leave Chinaski cold.
It's no surprise that he's unacceptable for the draft. Remember Pearl Harbor? a
short story from his collection SOUTH OF NO NORTH is worth quoting here:
"I didn't want to be awakened by some man with a bugle. I
didn't want to sleep in a barracks with a bunch of healthy sex-mad
football-loving overfed wisecracking masturbating lovable frightened pink
farting mother-struck modest basketball-playing American boys that I would have
to be friendly with, that I would have to get drunk with on leave, that I would
have to lay on my back with and listen to dozens of unfunny, obvious, dirty
jokes. I didn't want their itchy blankets or their itchy uniforms or their itchy
humanity. I didn't want to shit in the same place or piss in the same place or
share the same whore. I didn't want to see their toenails or read their letters
from home. I didn't want to watch their assholes bobbing in front of me in close
formation, I didn't want to make friends, I didn't want to make enemies, I just
didn't want them or it or the thing. To kill or be killed hardly mattered."
In FACTOTUM he doesn't let rip with the epithets, but simply
observes: "The war had always been at best a vague reality to me, but now it was
over. And the jobs that had always been difficult to get became more so." Indeed
the phantasmagoria of unemployment on the one hand and sweated labour on the
other, so powerfully portrayed in FACTOTUM, recalls the writing of B. Traven —
another German-American with narrative verve, an anarchic attitude and feeling
for 'the wretched of the earth’ :
"You want a job?".. Over his shoulder I could see a large
dark room. There was a long table with men and women standing on both sides of
it. They had hammers with which they pounded objects in front of them. In the
gloom the objects appeared to be clams. They smelled like clams. I turned and
continued walking down the street."
The loner naturally rejects this dreamlike mechanical toil
without end or satisfaction, though as with Hamsun (whom Bukowski admires) he
must earn a bare minimum to keep starvation at bay. At moments of extreme
pressure or lightheaded relaxation a sort of hallucinatory, alternative reality
is glimpsed, and this surreal streak runs throughout Bukowski's work.
POST OFFICE, for instance, ended with the hungover Chinaski,
all passion for the moment spent, wondering what to do with the pickled human
heart labelled Francis -- left by a medical student on his coffee-table.
FACTOTUM has a marvellous little fantasy-episode, quite self-contained, when
Chinaski, sleeping in the park to avoid trouble, experiences a vision of sorts:
"Sometime later I was awakened by what sounded like a roar. I
never knew that alligators roared. Or more exactly it was many things: a roar,
an agitated inhale, and a hiss. I also heard the snapping of jaws. A drunken
sailor was in the center of the pond and he had one of the alligators by the
tail. The creature tried to twist and reach the sailor but found it difficult.
The jaws were horrifying but very slow and uncoordinated. Another sailor and a
young girl stood watching and laughing. Then the sailor kissed the girl and they
walked off together leaving the other fighting the alligator..."
Gene Kelly meets Kafka, courtesy of Val Lewton! This demented
yet distanced weirdness is present in many Bukowski stories, some satirical,
some nightmarish, their titles memorably suggestive in themselves, e.g.: The
Gut-Wringing Machine (Swiftian fable); All The Assholes in the World and
Mine (haemorrhoid operation): No Way to Paradise (homunculi) Love
for $17.50 (a man enamoured of a wax window mannequin); Dr Nazi and Maja
Thurup (the well-endowed cannibal). In others, like Life And Death In the
Charity Ward, describing a close call with death itself, the humour grows
still blacker, but no one could laugh at that bleak and horrific story The
Fiend — a brutal piece about a child-rapist, nor at The Murder of Ramon
Vasquez (based upon silent movie star Novarro's ghastly end). In these
explorations of the urban Inferno Bukowski is quite as chilling and
unforgettable as those other superb chroniclers of American decay, Hubert Selby
and Jerzy Kosinski. Bukowski has not been given credit for his wide range.
With WOMEN, the most recent of these novels, we are back to
the broader, bawdy knockabout comedy Bukowski does so well. Chinaski, now
something of a literary lion and sexagenarian sexfiend, has just published his
Selected Works, and his biography is being written by (lord preserve us!)
"an anarchist from Beverly Hills, Ben Solvnag" Bukowski fans needn't worry,
though, the old satyr hasn't gone — as it were — soft. There's plenty of
self-mockery and his views haven't changed. The man who could write that
hilarious story Great Poets Die in Steaming Pots of Shit is entitled to
deflate pseuds mercilessly. "It was best to stay away from other writers and
just do your work, or just not do your work." Survivor Chinaski knows how fame
dilutes and destroys so many writers: "Readings diminished me. They were
soul-sucks," he declares, adding with disarming honesty: "Readings got you a
piece of ass sometimes." He never pretends to disdain fame and money however,
while remaining contemptuous of arty posturers and 'public’ writers. As he wrote
in NOTES OF A DIRTY OLD MAN, "When you leave your typewriter you leave your
machine-gun and the rats come pouring through", and writing is the only war that
interests him, an essentially private struggle, the individual versus time and
the void. Yet the less necessary battle of the sexes and his frequent bouts with
the booze leave writer Chinaski distracted, bloody but unbowed — and the reader
reeling if constantly entertained.
Perhaps one key to WOMEN is a maxim attributed to Lydia, the
crazed sculptress with whom Chinaski is entangled for much of the book. "If you
want to drink, drink; if you want to fuck, throw the bottle away," she tells
him. Chinaski himself realises: "My problem was that I wanted to do both." He
can justify both activities: "If something bad happens you drink in order to
celebrate; and if nothing happens you drink to make something happen." In an
earlier short story, Three Women, Bukowski wrote: "Each women fucked just
a bit differently, and that' s what kept a man going, that's what kept a man
trapped." Rejecting the concept of bourgeois marriage he added: "What did
marriage mean? Marriage meant a sanctified fuck and a sanctified fuck always and
finally, without fail, got boring, got to be a job. But that's what the world
wanted: some poor son of a bitch, trapped and unhappy, with a job to do."
Whereas in FACTOTUM virtually any job will do, in WOMEN virtually any woman will
— and does. The more he struggles to be independent and remain the rebellious
loner he has always been, the more Chinaski is enmeshed: as well as celebrating
the female, WOMEN describes, often derides, the "dumb hunger" of the penis, that
mindless, selfish, absurd, often vicious snake, There are willing women galore —
frenzied Lydia, pill-freak redhead Tammie, tall socialite Joanna, and scores of
others. The novel is both the longest and the weakest of the trio, inventive and
bitingly funny though it generally is, because it is in effect without
development, formless. By the end Chinaski is feeding a stray cat and awaiting
the next female admirer who has just phoned him: will she be a phoney or a Muse,
user or used? Will she get the better of Chinaski or not?
I suspect that some feminists might mistakenly vilify a writer
like Bukowski. He isn't crass, insensitive or endlessly self-congratulatory; he
does understand women, although he doesn't always like them and often uses them.
Certainly he's not a chauvinist; he sees the droll side of life too consistently
and truthfully for that. I only wish there were a female Bukowski, in fact,
pulling no punches and revelling in all the splendid diversity (and inherent
absurdity) of sex. Maybe one will emerge. Bukowski deliberately, brilliantly,
tackles most of the intimate and/or sexual subjects other writers avoid -
blackheads, piles, crabs, vomiting, hangovers, collapses physical and mental —
you name them! His work as a whole paints a frightening and funny panorama of
the lower depths of the American Dream, which in itself is nothing but a joke in
bad taste, black farce and raw lunacy incarnate. He will hook you or infuriate
you, but I defy you not to laugh.
If WOMEN seems the least convincing of these three novels, it
may be that I find Chinaski’s newfound (if hardwon) literary reputation takes
some of the edge off that unique, angry, laconic growl. I hope the stoic
malcontent doesn't become the indulgent hedonist, although I wouldn't begrudge
Bukowski himself any recognition or wealth — both long overdue in his case.
I urge British readers to go out and buy all three of these
novels, together with any other Bukowski books available in imported editions
from specialist bookshops, and to savour the work of this powerful, grotesquely
comic, absolutely unpretentious author. If storytelling is a lost art, Bukowski
has certainly rediscovered it. But be warned, remember (to end on Bukowski’s own
words) that "the public takes from a writer, or a writing, what it needs and
lets the remainder go. But what they take is usually what they need least and
what they let go is what they need most"
BIBLIOGRAPHICAL NOTE: BUKOWSKI'S UK PUBLICATIONS
POST OFFICE (Moat Hall Books, 1980. £1.25. Paperback
distributed by W. H. Allen/Star Books)
FACTOTUM (W. H. Allen, 1981. £6.95)
WOMEN (W. H. Allen, 1981. £6.95)
Of the three novels reviewed above, Alan Ross first published
POST OFFICE in his London Magazine Editions, 1974, together with a selection of
short stories, LIFE AND DEATH IN THE CHARITY WARD. Other collections referred to
or quoted from in my article are NOTES OF A DIRTY OLD MAN (City Lights, USA,
1973) — consisting of pieces written for the US underground newspaper Open City
in the late Sixties and establishing Bukowski as the funniest columnist since
Myles na Gopaleen/FlannO'Brien — and SOUTH OF NO NORTH (Black Sparrow, USA,
As Poet: Bukowski is essentially anecdotal and his poetry
nowhere as impressive as his prose, though worth looking at. A selection
appeared in the now defunct Penguin Modern Poets series, alongside (as I recall)
Lamantis and Norse, less interesting American poets. Work by Bukowski also
appeared occasionally in Peter Finch's excellent magazine Second Aeon
during the late Sixties—early Seventies.
Alexis’ bibliography can now be updated. Most of Bukowski’s
work is available from various publishers via the Book Despository at http://www.bookdepository.co.uk
or Amazon at http://www.amazon.co.uk
ON THE ART OF WRITING POETRY
[To William Packard]
September 12, 1991 9:56 PM
Thanks for sending the foreword to The Art of Poetry Writing.1
Like Shapiro said, it's odd that I'm in the company of Plato and Yeats, and
certainly the boys I used to work with in the factories and warehouses and in
the post office would think it odd too. Or the boys in the bars. I don't mind
it, although I don't write for recognition, I write to keep my poor ass from
getting totally ground up by this life. It saves part of me, although why I'm
trying to save part, I'm not sure. Perhaps some grubby instinct at work?
When you've lived as long as I have and written as long, you realize that
none of us has done enough or very much for that matter: Socrates, Descartes,
Hume, Kierkegaard, Sartre, Wittgenstein. We are all brought down finally because
there's little we can do about existence or non-existence (death) but think
about it. We are locked in. Sometimes we kill each other or ourselves, it's
about the only movement we can lend ourselves to.
Poetry? Well, it's not much, is it? A lot of posing and prancing and fakery,
wordplay for its own sake. Somehow poetry beckons the worst, the weaklings, the
cowards, the pimps, the pushers. Reading a book of poetry puts me to sleep.
There's no fire, no gamble. I keep waiting for some arrival, some explosion. Or,
I used to keep waiting. Now, I don't. I just stay away from it. There's no light
at the end of the tunnel, there isn't even a tunnel. The best thing I can do is
get drunk and listen to classical music. Or sleep and wait for death to get
closer. Leaving this will not be a horrible thing. Yet I'm glad, somehow, that I
threw my few words into the air: confetti, celebrating nothing.
1- Packard's The Art of Poetry Writing was published by St Martin's
Press in 1992.
Thanks to Alexis Lykiard for this