ONE DAY IN a Los Angeles bookshop in the mid-1970s, a thick City Lights softcover with a stark black-and-white spine magnetized a suburban adolescent’s eyeballs. “BUKOWSKI” the cover read at the top in big block letters, and at the bottom, in smaller letters: “Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions and General Tales of Ordinary Madness.” Between the author’s name and the title, the cover was … er, graced by a black-and-white photograph of an unbelievably ugly face, bleeding to the edges: a battered, pockmarked, leathery, lumpy mask covered with craters and burst blood vessels. That face looked like the result of some prolonged torture session. Little did I know (or at that larval age, really care) what manner of human experience had produced that hellish, baked-looking carnage.
Clearly a face like this “meant” something to a mature human being, but to a prurient kid that ghastly specimen said only: “Hey, you like ugly movie monsters, don’t you? Well, you’re gonna love this book!” Did I flip through the pages before I bought it? Not necessarily. But for the next few weeks I read the short stories in that hefty quarter-pounder while riding the bus to and from school, and they did turn out to be lotsa fun for a teenager ever on the lookout for new, perverse art-thrills. The sordid and funny “tales” all featured Henry Chinaski, the author’s alter ego, and recounted his athletic sexual encounters with boozed-out prostitutes and clumsy fistfights with drunken lowlifes in East Hollywood bars. Vomiting, too, was a running gag (as it were) in the Bukowski brand of avant-garde slapstick. And Chinaski’s violent arguments always seemed to end with all-cap, bilious outbursts like: “I’LL SUCK BOTH YOUR SNATCHES!” That part of Bukowski’s routine, I thought even then, got kinda old quick …
So the tortured writer behind these “tales” from Los Angeles’s lower depths was indeed a kind of monster: the ferociously self-destructive kind, a hulking bogeyman from Skid Row. Outlaw lit? He didn’t write about crime, exactly, unless you considered bar fights and jaywalking to be crimes. These were seemingly true-life accounts of the writer’s day-to-day life as a down-and-out. They reeked of vomit and toilets. It was like reading about laboratory rats. And they put Bukowski solidly in the line of other hard-luck L.A. writers, like his hero from the 1930s, screenwriter and novelist John Fante, and, from an earlier generation, the vagabond-turned-author Jim Tully. Needless to say, I was too young and suburban to take any of this in.
You would expect a high school boy to be reading Charles Bukowski now, of course, but back in 1976 I think this was rather rare. In fact, it was such a novelty (by “it,” I mean Bukowski) that even Mr. Rosenbaum, my hip high school English teacher, mispronounced the author’s name when I showed the book to him. “Who,” he asked, “is Byoo-koff-ski?”
Meanwhile, Bukowski’s output and his reputation grew and grew: first in his native Germany, then in the United States. In 1994, he died (maybe expired is a better word, after all that drinking), after spending his final years living in comfort in San Pedro, lionized, contented, and constantly soused.
I guess with me it’s really having more a taste for the drink than a taste for Humanity.
Bukowski is now, of course, a kind of patron saint of lowlifes, in Los Angeles and beyond; our eternal brownbag-swilling denizen of the liquor store, the poor East Hollywood–dwelling bum constantly hanging out at the racetrack. And it isn’t as if his type doesn’t exist today: it does, in abundance, the “community” of barflies of every color and non-creed, the tortured class, the not-quite or part-time homeless. He was one of them. But what set him apart was a heightened emotional sensitivity and genuine, stick-to-his-guns literary ambitions: “And I knew that there was a whole civilization of lost souls that lived in and off bars, daily, nightly and forever, until they died. I had never read about this civilization so I decided to write about it, the way I remembered it.”
I do all my writing when I’m drunk. All the time I type I’m drunk.
There is a great sense of guilt attached to drinking. I don’t share that guilt.
Did L.A.’s beloved boozehound die of drink? Yes and no. You could even say that drinking kept “Buk” alive, kept him going. He said so himself, many times, and according to the official mythology, he’d predicted this early on with the now-famous declaration, dutifully quoted in the new thematic collection of his writings, On Drinking, edited by Abel Debritto: “[W]ell, now I have found something, I have found something that is going to help me, for a long long time to come.”
To read his early biography is to learn why he needed alcohol so badly. Growing up in interwar L.A. subjected to constant, insane violence from his Prussian parents (“my father was a monster”), he became a drifter, shirking life’s obligations at a time when the young men of his generation were off fighting … which of course he didn’t do. He took bus trips across the country, avoiding everything but menial jobs and bars.
He settled into the habit of hanging out in bars all day, slowly but surely turning into an alcoholic, a fall-down drunk and a “scrapper,” one of those strange people who enjoy getting into fistfights. On Drinking quotes Bukowski several times declaring that for years he rarely ate food. Eventually he would turn this existence into a literary shtick, endlessly repeated, which brought the onetime outcast fame.
Not many people will say this, but Bukowski gives drinking a bad name. And yet, in his mid-20th-century heyday, wasn’t being an alcoholic a large part of what it meant to be a tough, he-man writer? “Buk” no doubt was aware that his chosen mode of life was a rather sordid, déclassé imitation of hard-drinking writers like Hammett and Hemingway, who, despite everything, wouldn’t be caught dead splayed-out drunk in the proverbial alley. But I’m guessing that, for him, the pale similarity was enough: drinking was manly, writerly, and easy.
some people never go crazy.
what truly horrible lives
they must live.
Like many humans, Charles Bukowski lived a timid life, too introverted by half, masking his general fear of people with a thin and unconvincing misanthropy. Unlike his pen pal Henry Miller, he never displays much self-awareness or insight, and when he tries, it’s muddled:
If you gotta be anything, be an alcoholic. If I hadn’t been a drunkard, I probably would have committed suicide long ago. You know, working the factories, the eight hour job. The slums. The streets.
I think that the most horrible people are the well-balanced, the healthy and the purposeful.
Quotes like these from On Drinking are typical samples of Bukowski’s dead-end philosophy, which apparently was not just a literary pose. (If he’d ever become aware, somewhere along the line, of Aristotle’s comment that those who are born ugly will have little chance of happiness … well, that couldn’t have helped either.) He was dealt a bad hand in many ways, but one thing you could say for him: as a drinker and a writer he possessed the stubborn endurance of a cockroach.
Sunday night in Los Angeles is the graveyard of the nation,
they are all waiting for Monday morning.
Bukowski liked to emphasize “the line that startles” as his goal in writing a poem, and he did indeed write some genuinely great, startling poems, especially early on. The problem, though, is how often his choice of words can tend toward the tone-deaf, just enough off the mark to miss the point of impact. And some are way off:
An awful lot of people who drink aren’t men at all, they are hardly anything.
And I wrote and wrote and wrote, I loved the banging of the typer.
The typer? Suit yourself. The booze-themed poems chosen for On Drinking read a lot like the booze-themed prose pieces included right next to them, and here I can’t help but think of the words of another prolific substance abuser, the Beats’ mentor William Burroughs: “From my way of thinking, many poets are simply lazy prose writers.” It’s Bukowski’s novels that anchor his reputation and justify the absurd amount of attention he gets as a poet. (The promo material for On Drinking calls him “America’s […] most influential and imitated poet.” God help us if that were true, which it isn’t.) See if you don’t agree: many of the shorter poems here read like jocular cast-off notes-to-self.
But if it is true that time, as another poet has written, “[w]orships language and forgives / [e]veryone by whom it lives, / [p]ardons cowardice, conceit,” then Bukowski made the best choice. There is now an official Los Angeles Historical Landmark sign erected in front of the bungalow on De Longpre Avenue where he lived in the 1960s (L.A. Cultural Heritage Board Monument No. 912).
I have joined the great drunks of
I have been selected.
How can I complain? Should I complain about the royalties? I’m paid for drinking. They’re paying me to drink. That’s lovely.
And yet, despite everything, you want to root for someone as gross as Bukowski, if only as a deliciously offensive foil to our over-slick, conformist era of “wellness” worshippers and earnest busybodies trying to tell you what to do. Some journalists have actually wondered aloud if Bukowski’s work can (get this, now) “survive” the current era. It’s the wrong question to ask, of course, since artist-hermits aren’t in the business of producing public service announcements. You either take what he gives you and enjoy it, or you don’t. But be warned that On Drinking will contain the words “beer” and “vomit” (in close proximity) on pretty much every page. And forgive me for quoting Bill Burroughs one more time in relation to Bukowski’s endlessly reworked obsessions: “When people start talking about their bowel movements they are as inexorable as the processes of which they speak.”
On Drinking ends on a note of grace from “Buk,” in a poem that’s like a diary entry and titled “wine pulse”:
hell, I don’t know, sometimes I feel like Van Gogh or Faulkner or
one of those — say Stravinsky; I just keep drinking the wine and
smoking, and there’s nothing more magic or gentle than this, that’s
why I tend to talk about it, I want to keep the luck going…
if you knew what I had here you would forgive me
But I’d like to end on Bukowski’s more-or-less credo as a writer (not in the book), culled from a videotaped interview, undated:
I went (out) there with no idea of what I was going to do. It was just that everything was so stuffy and so false […] I couldn’t stand it, and I had to lash out […] You expect the “moderators” to be stuffy and careful, but the writers themselves are supposed to be the living souls. When they are too careful and too political, and when they pussyfoot too much, it’s very discouraging. It’s like the world is empty. So I lashed out at all this and […] I think I was right.