Book Review

Lush Life: Remembering Charles Bukowski

Baltimore City Paper, July 20, 1994

A collection of books by and about Charles Bukowski Run With the Hunted: A Charles Bukowski Reader
Edited By John Martin
HarperPerennial, 497 pages

By Charles Bukowski
Black Sparrow Press, 202 pages

Summer is the time in Baltimore to think about Charles Bukowski. Heat congeals the air, rendering visible waves of exhaust; the sun fries pigeon droppings in office-building ledges, choking the air ducts with foul aromas; and Pimlico races run 26 minutes apart, leaving time to get another drink and lazily stroll over to the betting window to lay out anther $20. This is the time to sit in a dark bar, grab a cold beer, and read yourself some Bukowski.

His readers have become accustomed to this terrain--a landscape of bars, prostitutes, broken people, hatred, dead-end jobs, horse races, bars, chest-thumping misogyny, sad women, poker games, failed writers, irate landladies, bars, anonymous death, sweaty sex.

From "Young in New Orleans":

sitting up in my bed
the lights out
hearing the outside
lifting my cheap
bottle of wine,
letting the warmth of
the grape
as I heard the rats
moving about the
I preferred them
to humans.

Most of his stories and poems have no recognizable shape. Critic John William Corrington described his poems as "the spoken word nailed to paper." They just clatter on for awhile and creak to a stop, much like life itself. Bukowski kept himself close to his narrators: much of his work seems to be little-altered autobiography, at once savage and self-aggrandizing. He flaunted the frankness of Henry Miller and the machismo of Ernest Hemingway. He tapped Dostoevsky's alienation and hung firm to French novelist Celine's belief that man cannot rise above self-destruction. He combined all these attitudes so casually that he was often accused of mere posturing, of not creating art at all.

More often, he was celebrated as America's drunk poet laureate. But if he drank as much as he and his devotees said he did, he long ago would have have been found dead in some flophouse with a brain pickled from alcohol. When Bukowski died this past March, at the respectable age of 73, he was taken by leukemia.

Bukowski probably lived a fuller life than his myth suggested. For the thrill seeking Bukowski-ite, Run With the Hunted reveals that the man wrote about every aspect of his life with an equally jaundiced eye. We may know him as the barfly, but that persona was only part of his life, and as it turns out, his output.

Although in his lifetime Bukowski published more than 45 books of poetry, prose, and letters, as well as the screenplay for Barfly, Run With the Hunted is Bukowski's first book with a major house. His lifelong friend and publisher, John Martin, has gathered a representative selection of Bukowski's poetry, short stories, and novel excerpts, not in the order of composition but chronologically by subject matter, a la Malcolm Cowley's The Portable Faulkner. Martin includes not only tales from Bukowski's well-documented skid-row days but also passages about his 12-year stint working in the post office, his youth, and his cult fame. (Unfortunately, Martin has not included an index or even a table of contents.)

What links the pieces in Haunted is not a sting of lowlifes, seedy hotel rooms, and cocktails but rather a deep mistrust of human pretensions. Bukowski was working not to romanticize skid-row life but to de-romanticize all of life itself. Of course, Bukowski's own pretension was a prideful, even boisterous sense of outsidership. From "The Life of a Bum":

Harry glanced at the drivers of the cars. They seemed unhappy. The world was unhappy. People were in the dark. People were terrified and disappointed. People were caught in traps. People were defensive and frantic. They felt as if their lives were being wasted. And they were right.

Reading Hunted, one suspects Bukowski had a good reason to stand apart. Growing up as a German immigrant transplanted in L.A. (he was born in August 1920 in Andernach, Germany), the young Bukowski was taunted by other children. Not helping the situation any was a particularly ravaging case of acne he developed in his early teens. Hunted's section on Bukowski's childhood--taken mostly from the novel Ham on Rye--portrays those years as almost unremittingly bleak:

Then the pitcher wound up and I broke for second. I ran like crazy and slid into second. The ball arrived late. The tag was late.

"You're out!" screamed the boy whose turn it was to umpire. I got up, not believing it.

"I said, 'YOU'RE OUT!'" the umpire screamed.

Then I knew that I was not accepted.. . .The others wanted me "out" because I was supposed to be "out.""

Whether this incident was autobiographical or imagined, Bukowski clearly felt judged as out, and this rigid insistence on outsidership continued throughout his writing.

According to Neeli Cherkovski's 1991 biography, Hank: The Life of Charles Bukowski, Bukowski left home after high school, when his father found his short stories and angrily threw him out into the street. He picked up his typewriter and manuscripts and never looked back. After a stint at Los Angeles City College, he rented a $1.50-a-week room along down town Temple Street. There he became acquainted with L.A.'s run-down bars and down-and-outers who frequented them.

But even on skid row Bukowski couldn't find solace. "You know, I had this feeling that maybe there would be a touch of brilliance there, but I was young, maybe a bit romantic," he recalls in Hank. "Yet the people on the row only seemed a little more beaten than those living ordinary, average lives. So I felt all the more like an outcast."

So Bukowski roamed the country, working as a dishwasher, railroad-track crewman, truckdriver, gas-station attendant, warehouseman, shipping clerk, parking-lot attendant. He clocked in at a dog-biscuit factory, a slaughterhouse, and a cake factory. All the while, he submitted short stories to major publications, collecting mostly rejection slips. (One small piece was published in Story magazine.) Discouraged, he drifted back to Los Angeles. In 1954 he took a position at the post office that would be his longest-held job. He hated it--surprise!--and later chronicled his disgust in the novel Post Office.

By the late 1950s he rediscovered his love of writing. This time, instead of aiming for the big game like Harper's, he aimed lower, setting his sights on on small independent literary periodicals. After that, he published much more frequently. According to Cherkovski, when Bukowski started writing again he focused not on achieving fame but rather for writing for its own sake.

His first published book was a volume of poetry, Flower, Fist and Bestial Wail (1960). In 1966, he met John Martin, an office-supply-store manager with a hankering for publishing. Martin thought this Bukowski character could be a cornerstone of his newly minted Black Sparrow Press. He offered Bukowski $100 a month for the rest of his life if he would write for Black Sparrow. Though it was a cut in pay from the post office, Bukowski accepted, and delivered his first novel 21 days later.

Slowly, mainly by word of mouth, Bukowski achieved small-scale notoriety along the West Coast as the drunk who penned tough poetry and prose. The American literary community took to him cautiously, praising his honesty while criticizing his writing's apparent formlessness, "Since Bukowski has more than 20 volumes of poetry and prose to his credit and a growing reputation, one might think that he would shape his poems more often into complete poetic statements," Peter Dollard wrote in Library Journal in 1972.

Critics have tended to lump Bukowski into the Beat Movement, though he derided Beat poets for letting their politics interfere with their poetry. In fact, his writing's relentless valorization of alcohol seems more in line with the post-Prohibition celebration of alcohol's legal return than the Beat's use of liquor as a rebellion tool. Similarly, his migratory habits seem more akin to Depression-era travel--when one moved to find work and hobos were heroes to kids--rather than from Kerouac-ian urge to seek America by hitchiking.

As Bukowski's bank account and frame grew, his nihilism mellowed somewhat, but he continued to write with he same intimacy. In an excerpt from the novel Hollywood, about the making of the movie Barfly, he writes:

What we want to do is make you a Corporation, so you get all the tax breaks.

It sounds awful.

I told you, if you don't want to pay taxes you must do as I say.

All I want to do is type. I don't want to carry around a big load.

All you do is appoint a Board of Directors, a Secretary, Treasurer, so forth . . . It's easy.

It sounds horrible. Listen, all this sounds like pure shit. Maybe I'd be better off just paying taxes. I just don't want anybody bothering me. I don't want a tax man knocking on my door at midnight. I'll even pay extra just to make sure they leave me alone.

One night have figured that the last novel of Bukowski's prolific career would not pull any surprise punches, but the just-out Pulp defies those expectations. Bukowski is giving his readers the final middle finger, the final thumb of his nose. He even dedicates the book to "bad writing."

Bad writing it is not, but it's radically different from any of Bukowski's other work. We'll never know if he intended Pulp as his last volume, but it makes perfect sense as one.

Pulp is a take off on detective fiction, the gritty Mickey Spillane version. Bukowski doing Spillane seems like such a smooth fit, one wonders why he didn't think of it before. He knew the scenery--skid row, the city's dark side. He knew how to walk the walk and talk the talk. As a detective novel, however, Pulp disappoints; it's thin, too sketchy. Bukowski had other work to do.

Pulp may be the first Bukowski novel with an identifiable plot. Nicky Belane, a private dick with an office in the seedy part of town, is paid a visit by Lady Death, who wants to find the writer Celine. He points out Celine died in 1961. "I am aware of the stats," she retorts. He is the one who escaped her clutches, and she wants to nail him.

Belane's efforts to find Celine, however, are hampered by another request. Someone named John Barton offers him $100 per month for life if he can find the "Red Sparrow." Barton will not say who or what the Red Sparrow is, but Lady Death soon offers Bukowski the Red Sparrow if he can find Celine.

You don't have to be Harold Bloom to to read Pulp as an allegory of influence, the case of the younger male writer killing off his literary father to attain literary immortality himself. Lady Death is always nipping at Belane's heels, threatening to take him if he doesn't help her take Celine first. The centrality of this pressure for immortality to the writer's condition is evident in Belane's numerous self-disgusted asides:

I was gifted, am gifted. Sometimes I look at my hands and realize that I could have been a great pianist or something. But what have my hands done? Scratched my balls, written checks, tied shoes, pushed toilet levers, etc. I have wasted my hands. And my mind.

For so fatalistic a man, Charles Bukowski left with his output is in surprisingly healthy shape. Most of his work is still in print at Black Sparrow, and Barfly is a steady cult draw at video stores. As an author, he couldn't have found a finer tribute than Run With the Hunted--a major publishing house anthology assembled by the small-press editor who has published his life's work, including his swan song. Not bad for a man who spent his life tying shoes, writing checks, and pushing toilet levers.

Black Sparrow Press: 24 10th St., Santa Rosa, Ca. 95401.