The pulp author who gave the world Conan the Barbarian was a soul deeply troubled by the barbarism of modernity.
Poet Laureate of Low Life
Probably the first thing to say about the quintessentially flamboyant, bibulous, and, to some, surprisingly prolific author Charles Bukowski (1920–1994) is that he could really write. Anyone familiar with his archetype as a writer will know that there’s a long if not always proud tradition of debauched-looking men with sandblasted faces and ragged shirts loitering around downtown bars all afternoon, a cigarette clenched between carious teeth, haranguing their audience about their latest work-in-progress, and not infrequently settling any critical dispute on the subject with their fists. Bukowski did all this, and more, eventually gravitating to the dockside community of San Pedro, Los Angeles, holding court there most days in some waterfront establishment on a steady diet of Schlitz, Cutty Sark, and Dexedrine before precariously making his way back, often on foot, to his current, and almost invariably short-term, suburban lodgings.
For nearly fifty years, his world was one of smoky rooms, constant if only fitfully rewarded creative endeavor, stopgap jobs, and spectacularly failed love affairs. In every way he was the embodiment of twentieth-century literary bohemianism. Compared to Bukowski, his devotee and sometime friend Hunter S. Thompson was just another officially tolerated, self-mythologizing moral slob with a passing gift for comic hyperbole.
But Bukowski, unlike so many others of our artistic demimonde, actually delivered the goods. He wrote at a furious pace, often in a race to stay one step ahead of the bailiff, and in a lean, masculine style exactly suited to the nature of his subject, which was more often than not a lightly fictionalized account of his own life and times. In the period between 1955 and 1985, it was estimated that he wrote more than three thousand poems, at least ten collections of short stories, four novels, and the autobiographical screenplay Barfly. One says “estimated” because in the 1950s and early ’60s many of his poems and stories got lost in the mail (a particular irony for one who frequently sustained himself by working at the post office), and Bukowski didn’t make copies. “If I keep carbons, I too am a posturer looking for gravy and light,” he remarked.
By 1967, Bukowski claimed to have lost some five hundred poems in this fashion, which seems extreme, but perhaps less so when you remember that he was in the habit of sending his stuff out wrapped in the same greasy and bloodstained bag he’d previously used to bring home slabs of raw beef from his butcher (“I think you’ll get a lot out of this,” one Bukowski editor remarked to another on the arrival of a manuscript. “Yes, botulism,” his colleague replied), and that this may or may not have been adorned by anything so sordidly conventional as a stamp.
Whatever the final tally of the Bukowski canon, it adds up to a lot to fit in with a life as a full-time character and suggests there was more to him than the pantomime boozer he presented to the world. By general agreement, his long-form masterpiece is his 1982 novel Ham on Rye, which conjures up a wonderfully louche, autobiographical account of an acne-riddled adolescent of the 1930s and his successive discoveries of alcohol, girls, and the public library’s collection of D. H. Lawrence.
Here is Bukowski describing himself as a Los Angeles high school student writing, from imagination, of a visit to the city by President Herbert Hoover:
The crowd rose as the President’s car entered the arena. There had never been anything like it before. It was the President. He waved. We cheered. A band played. Seagulls circled overhead as if they too knew it was the President. And there were skywriting airplanes too. They wrote words in the sky like: “Prosperity is just around the corner.”
The President stood up in his car, and just as he did the clouds parted and the light from the sun fell across his face. It was almost as if god knew too. Then the cars stopped and our great President, surrounded by secret service agents, walked to the speaker’s platform. As he stood behind the microphone a bird flew down from the sky and landed on the platform near him. The President waved to the bird and laughed and we all laughed with him. Then he began to speak and the people listened. I couldn’t quite hear the speech because I was sitting too near a popcorn machine which made a lot of noise popping the kernels, but I heard him say that the problems in Manchuria were not serious, and that at home everything was going to be all right, we shouldn’t worry, all we had to do was to believe in America.
Or assessing his own nascent literary ability:
That night after dinner I read Becker’s short story. It was good and I was jealous. It was about riding his bike at night and then delivering a telegram to a beautiful woman. The writing was objective and clear, there was a gentle decency about it. Becker claimed Thomas Wolfe as an influence but he didn’t wail and ham it up like Wolfe did. The emotion was there but it wasn’t spelled out in neon. Becker could write, he could write better than I could.
In fact, from the novel’s first paragraph, written in that familiar conversational air, both of carefully weighted prose and seemingly casual recollection, the reader is hooked. “The first thing I remember is being under something. It was a table. I saw a table leg. I saw the legs of the people, and a portion of the tablecloth hanging down. It was dark under there, I liked being under there. It must have been in Germany. I must have been between one and two years old. I felt good under the table. Nobody seemed to know I was there.”
The lack of pretension, the apparently mundane subject matter, and the seemingly artless style owe something to Hemingway, but Bukowski was more than just another aspiring tough-guy scribe operating in the margins between fiction and reportage. He consistently displays a mastery of dialogue, rarely if ever strains for effect, and knows how to sketch a fully rounded character in a few words. Only the most skillful authors make the writing of compelling prose seem easy. Not that Bukowski himself ever much cared to agonize on where the craft came from. As he once informed the editor of the reference book Who’s Who in America:
Somebody asked me: “What do you do? How do you write, create?” You don’t, I told them. You don’t try. That’s very important: not to try, either for Cadillacs, creation or immortality. You wait, and if nothing happens, you wait some more. It’s like a bug high on the wall. You wait for it to come to you. When it gets close enough you reach out, slap out and kill it. Or if you like its looks, you make a pet of it.
Bukowski “didn’t try” to the extent of publishing literally millions of words of autobiographical sketches and other stories, as well as still-uncounted scores of journalistic broadsides on everything from drinking to the etiquette of heavyweight boxing contests (licensed or otherwise), to the follies of the Los Angeles city council, to gambling, smoking, writing, fornicating, and, ultimately, drinking again.
Yet unlike most journalists working the more scabrous end of the market, Bukowski was a superbly gifted and prolific poet. Take these lines that conclude “Tragedy of the Leaves,” included in his anthology Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame:
and I walked into a dark hall
where the landlady stood
execrating and final,
sending me to hell,
waving her fat, sweaty arms
screaming for rent
because the world has failed us
This sort of thing may have led Adam Kirsch to write of Bukowski in the New Yorker: “He bears the same relation to poetry as Zane Grey does to fiction, or Ayn Rand to philosophy—a highly colored, morally uncomplicated cartoon of the real thing.” But while the critics yapped at his ankles, Bukowski continued to turn out the verse and prose, sending the work off every day, rarely if ever changing a word in proof, telling editors that he didn’t notice—or didn’t mind—any errors. As he used to say, writing, to him, was like an endlessly scratched itch. All he cared about was the next line. He composed all the poems and the stories and the books and then he forgot them.
“A Ten-Year Drunk”
Seemingly the most iconic of American lowlife balladeers, Bukowski was in fact born in Andernach, then part of the Weimar Republic. His father was an American G.I. turned building contractor who married a local woman while stationed in Germany after the Great War. The family moved to Maryland, then to Los Angeles later in the 1920s. Young Charles was teased by his childhood playmates because of his pronounced foreign accent, and both an extreme adolescent case of acne and a series of beatings from his father served further to darken a personality already prone to a sardonic view of life. He began drinking at around the age of fourteen.
This was the era of German rearmament and gathering war clouds in Europe. When war duly broke out in September 1939, Bukowski, by then rather casually studying journalism at Los Angeles City College, spent his days poring through the material at the local X-rated bookstore or listlessly attending a few isolationist rallies. His absolute refusal to go with the consensus, or to accept handed-down truths, whether in politics or art, remained the constant in his character. When the FBI eventually came for Bukowski in 1942 to enquire about his draft status, he managed to convince the military psychologists that he wasn’t a team player, and that was an end to the matter. A few weeks later, he got his first story into print, called “Aftermath of a Lengthy Rejection Slip,” and that in effect set the pattern for a career that combined a struggle for the preeminence of individuality and self-expression over the forces of conformity and repression—at its best underpinned by a deep compassion for humanity—with equal reserves of misogyny, cynicism, and personal misbehavior.
A disillusioned Bukowski subsequently abandoned writing for almost a decade, a time that he referred to as a “ten-year drunk.” But even this protracted interlude wasn’t entirely wasted. With a certain internal logic, Bukowski later recycled many of the escapades and indignities of the era into his published oeuvre. The work has a certain undeniable ring of authenticity as a result. You’re not reading the words of someone informing us what it might be like, for instance, to appeal to the night sergeant at a downtown police station to be allowed to sleep in one of his cells, then, that hospitality denied him, taking to a deserted shopping cart down by the local docks, a sanctuary also offering asylum to an impressive variety of rats. Instead, it’s Bukowski in essence quoting from his diary. In that sense, at least, he’s the forerunner of all the confessional, skid-row journalism and chatty reportage that’s so ubiquitous these days. At its best, works like the anthology Notes of a Dirty Old Man (1969) or the novel Post Office (1971) are an engagingly slurry, autobiographical riff on the underbelly of American urban life in the mid-twentieth century.
To get some of the true flavor of Bukowski in this period, you might imagine a burly, pockmarked middle-aged man hanging about, say, an East Los Angeles bar, telling people about his life. He relates improbable stories about his father having beaten him with a razor strop on a fixed schedule, three times a week, from the ages of six to eleven, or of growing up with “crater-sized” acne and a creative talent long unacknowledged by the critics, moving around, sleeping rough, drinking industrial quantities of alcohol, and frequently passing the time by playing doctor with the local women. Once installed in a relationship of any recognizable sort, there’s more drink, often of the dynamite-strength variety, and a whole series of consequent misadventures in shady locales. The booze and the women nonetheless always have a beneficial effect. There’s a lot more in the same general vein. The only difference between this man and Bukowski is that while one might be a bore, the other is a born storyteller with a rare turn of phrase, a philosophical bent, and the good sense to cloak his obvious disenchantment with life in a stoical, professional manner.
At its worst, of course, it’s still all a long, relentlessly introspective litany of unprovoked barroom fistfights, abusive lovers, and repeated late-night trips as a charity patient to the nearest hospital E.R. Which was the real Bukowski? The insightful, compassionate chronicler of the dark side of the American Dream? Or the self-promoting lowlife with a penchant for knives, booze, and profanity, and the exercise of only mediocre personal hygiene?
Taken as a whole, Bukowski’s work—and the man himself, were he still alive—might struggle to meet the exquisite sensitivity of today’s mainstream publishing houses, let alone the growing ranks of moral arbiters on social media. And perhaps it’s that very point that serves to make so many of his books and stories so enjoyable. On some fundamental level, we need the likes of Bukowski, if only as a permanent reminder that one of American literature’s chief historical functions has always been to rattle the guardrails defining the limits of acceptable behavior. We want to be entertained by stories about him swaggering around brawling in bars. What a sad lot most of today’s morally approved American authors are by comparison. “When a writer focuses more on forming a community with his readers than conveying the fact of our experience, he can be left high and dry when the assumptions undergirding that community change,” David Orr sniffed when reviewing Bukowski’s posthumous On Drinking in the pages of the New York Times. That exclusion from the cultural mainstream would very likely have been fine with Bukowski, who had the prescience to write in his poem “The Genius of the Crowd,” as long ago as 1966:
Beware the preachers
Beware the knowers,
Beware those who are
quick to know.
They are afraid of what they do not know.
Beware those who seek constant crowds for
They are nothing alone.
When Money Breeds Contempt
Which brings us to Bukowski’s latter-day incarnation as a speaker on the North American college-campus circuit. Fully a decade before Hunter S. Thompson began honing his shtick as what the New York Times dubbed “our official crazy,” Bukowski was out there not so much pushing as testing to the breaking point the boundaries of academic tolerance for a writer’s personal exhibition of the literary counterculture.
Here is what the Vancouver Sun had to say about Bukowski’s appearance in that city on October 12, 1979, at a time when he was approaching his sixtieth birthday:
Five hundred young people came to watch, titillated by the sight of a drunken poet who might just vomit on the stage mid-reading.
It begins well enough. Bukowski reads, speaks a little, reads again. Then the tempo slows down. Bukowski begins to talk to the audience. “I’m not here to talk to you guys,” he says. “I’m here to make money. Ten minutes now. That’s $113.” Everyone laughs and applauds.
Bukowski offers insults with easy impartiality to the people waiting for him to go on reading. He reminds them that they paid $6 a head to see him, and says he wouldn’t pay anything to see all of them together.
“Forgive me,” Bukowski says, after another string of insults, “you have my soul, I have your money.”
Then: “The sight of this audience sickens me.” A beer bottle hits the curtain behind him. He threatens to leave; the crowd begs for more.
I happened to be in attendance that night and also to be lucky enough to be included in a small party delegated later to take Bukowski to dinner. By dinner he meant several more rounds of drink at his hotel’s bar, fortified by a rather gnarled-looking slab of beef jerky he pulled, already unwrapped, from his trouser pocket. Incongruously dressed for that time of the year in the Pacific Northwest in a scuffed pair of tennis shoes, tan chinos, and a garish nylon bowling shirt, he had a rough, warty face that looked as though it might have been knocked together out of old bits of scrap metal lying around a body shop, smoked a succession of pungent Beedi cigarettes (“Five times more tar than regular brands,” he told us with pride), and spoke in a surprisingly soft, level voice. He still had a good head of crinkly hair.
Bukowski was highly distressed by the events of the previous twenty-four hours, which had seen him forced to take a “kidney-jolting” ride on a Greyhound bus (surely his natural habitat) up the freeway from Seattle after fog had grounded his plane. On arrival in Vancouver, he had taken a short nap at his hotel but had somehow fallen out of bed and been rushed to hospital for stitches. The reading itself had been a “Goddamned disaster,” Bukowski remarked, complaining, without apparent irony, that the audience had come to stare at him “like an animal in a zoo,” rather than to listen to him read the seventeen poems his contract rather precisely demanded.
He asked me if I thought he’d given an adequate portrayal of the “poet laureate of lowlife”—for that matter, would he be paid in full?—and I told him that surely the only grounds for complaint would have been had he appeared for the event dressed in a neat suit and tie and restricted himself onstage to drinking only a glass of water. He laughed a bit at that, giving a noise like a truck crunching over gravel. Anyway, he was paid. But for whatever reason this particular event proved to be Bukowski’s last international performance of himself or his work—insofar as there was a difference between the two—and one of his last in any location.
A Complicated Man
Things finally seemed to be going Bukowski’s way in the mid-1980s. His novel Ham on Rye was selling around twenty thousand copies a year in hardback—a figure most serious authors could only dream of—several of his poetry collections were in widespread translation, and in time even Hollywood came calling with the lightly fictionalized Barfly, which Bukowski scripted. The film quickly earned back its $3 million budget. In 1987 the Los Angeles Times informed its readers: “Although Bukowski remains largely unappreciated at home, his European sales have made him a wealthy man. Two million copies of his books are in print. . . . In Germany and France his visits are major cultural events. Newspapers run front-page stories. Fans follow him around as if he were a rock star.”
Even in Vancouver, I remember, Bukowski’s predominantly young and female admirers had tailed him all over town, hoping to touch the hem of his cloak, if not considerably more than that, and once onstage it was all Bukowski could do to sign the scores of books and other material thrust up at him. At his request, some of us went up to his hotel room the following morning to help him with his luggage. He told us that he thought he had everything, but perhaps we could just check that he hadn’t inadvertently left any small personal possessions behind. We found two empty wine bottles stashed in his bedside cabinet and a well-known local poetess peacefully asleep in the bathtub.
Of course, set against this uplifting tale of artistic perseverance and ultimate personal and financial fulfillment on Bukowski’s part, there’s the alternative view that continues to see him as a pseudo-intellectual literary clown whose knowledge of the world was more or less confined to the details of his own life. It was as if he were living in a play throughout his waking hours. He was spoiled and petulant, and almost entirely dependent on other people—women, really—to look after him. He was an aging brat, reluctant to admit that he was now in his sixties. He had an acerbic wit, when it suited him to display it, but was totally lacking in the common sense that others find necessary.
As I say, that was one view of Bukowski as he passed through his more lucrative late period. He admitted in conversation with the Los Angeles Times in 1987: “I don’t like people. I don’t even like myself. There must be something wrong with me.” There was a moment when a female member of the audience in Vancouver quoted back to him what he’d said at a poetry reading in 1970, “You can do without a woman, but not a typewriter,” and even then there had been boos and jeers mingled in with the laughter. (Bukowski was unfazed, later remarking, “I tell the women that the face is my experience and the hands are my soul—anything to get those panties down.”) And that was now forty years ago, when Harvey Weinstein was still a young man making innocuous pop-music documentaries, and the “MeToo” movement had yet to decisively transform our culture.
The heroic view of Bukowski as a fiercely principled man of letters may, then, be something of a simplification. But the more modern reaction that portrays him as a merely frivolous, comic figure, a sort of caricature dirty old man, photographed constantly with a bottle in his hand, may also be an inadequate picture of the creator of some five thousand surviving poems and stories, an author whose work illuminates such subjects as love, war, death, the workings of fate, the value of daily labor, the nature of God, and, ultimately, the commonality of human existence. This latter Bukowski is the man who wrote in his posthumously released book The Captain Is Out to Lunch and the Sailors Have Taken Over the Ship: “We’re all going to die, all of us, what a circus! That alone should make us love each other but it doesn’t. We are terrorized and flattened by trivialities, we are eaten up by nothing.”
Bukowski succumbed to leukemia on March 9, 1994. He was seventy-three, which was roughly twice the age to which he’d once confidently predicted he would live. He left behind a widow, a first wife, an adult daughter, and numerous other partners and companions whom he referred to as “shack-jobs” among other discreditable terms. In scouring the internet, I see that Bukowski’s most quoted aphorism comes from his latter-day poem “The Laughing Heart”:
You can’t beat death but
you can beat death in life, sometimes.
and the more you learn to do it,
the more light there will be.
your life is your life.
know it while you have it.
It’s a fair point. But personally I prefer the inscription Bukowski chose for his tombstone, which serves as a reminder both of his seemingly nonchalant approach to his life and art, and of his determination not to abandon the struggle in the face of adversity. “Don’t Try,” the epitaph reads, immediately above the image of a boxer.
Christopher Sandford is the author of many books, including Union Jack: John F. Kennedy’s Special Relationship with Great Britain and The Man Who Would Be Sherlock: The Real-Life Adventures of Arthur Conan Doyle.
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