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The Genius of Charles Bukowski

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Recently, I rediscovered the work of Charles Bukowski after many years. For those unfamiliar with Bukowski, he is one of the most popular novelists and poets ever to inhabit the American counter culture, with some of his works still considered classics and as popular today as they were when they were published and the man himself was still alive.

The book of his I picked up from the back of the bookshelf was Factotum, a semi-autobiographical account of his years as a down and out itinerant worker in the 1940s, moving back and forth across the United States working in a series of deadening, menial and low wage jobs, sleeping in cheap hotels when he could afford the rent, or in parks, perennially drunk and involved in dysfunctional relationship after dysfunctional relationship with a variety of women. Adopting the alter ego Henry Chinaski in each of his classic semi-autobiographical novels: Post Office (1971); Factotum (1975); Women (1978); and Ham On Rye (1982), Bukowski's genius was in articulating the deadening reality of working life in simple yet scintillating prose, while at the same time infusing his work with a scathing rejection of polite society with its stifling and rigid conventions.

When I got back to Los Angeles I found a cheap hotel just off Hoover Street and stayed in bed and drank. I drank for some time, three or four days. I couldn't get myself to read the want ads. The thought of sitting in front of a man behind a desk and telling him that I wanted a job, that I was qualified for a job, was too much for me. Frankly, I was horrified by life, at what a man had to do simply in order to eat, sleep, and keep himself clothed. So I stayed in bed and drank. When you drank the world was still out there, but for the moment it didn't have you by the throat.

Born in Germany in 1920, Bukowksi came to the United States with his parents in 1923. In 1930 they settled in Los Angeles, the city that was to feature so prominently in his prose and poetry, just as the Depression swept the country. His father was unemployed for long stretches and in this passage from Ham and Rye, the autobiography of his childhood years, years in which Bukowski suffered constant beatings and mental abuse from his father, he describes the moment when the beatings no longer frightened him.

He hit me again. But the tears weren't coming. My eyes were strangely dry. I thought about killing him. In a couple of years I could beat him to death. But I wanted him now. He wasn't much of anything. I must have been adopted. He hit me again. The pain was still there but the fear of it was gone. The strop landed again. The room no longer blurred. I could see everything clearly. My father seemed to sense the difference in me and he began to lash me harder, again and again, but the more he beat me the less I felt. It was almost as if he was the one who was helpless. Something had occurred, something had changed. I heard him hanging up the strop. He walked to the door. I turned.
"Hey," I said.
My father turned and looked at me.
"Give me a couple more," I told him, "if it makes you feel any better."

Outside the parental home, Bukowski's life was just as difficult as a boy growing up. He was rejected by the other kids both in his neighbourhood and at school and regarded as a misfit. His cause wasn't helped by the chronic acne he suffered, which left him permanently scarred.

When one boil vanished another would appear. I often stood in front of the mirror alone, wondering how ugly a person could get. I would look at my face in disbelief, then turn to examine all the boils on my back. I was horrified. No wonder people stared, no wonder they said unkind things. It was not simply a case of teenage acne. These were inflamed, relentless, large, swollen boils filled with pus, I felt singled out, as if I been selected to be this way. My parents never spoke to me about my condition.

In his adult years, Bukowski's experiences of being an outcast growing up unsurprisingly led to him embracing solitude and seeking sanctuary in his own company wherever possible.

It was the first time I had been alone for five days. I was a man who thrived on solitude; without it I was like another man without food or water. Each day without solitude weakened me. I took no pride in my solitude; but I was dependent on it. The darkness of the room was like sunlight to me. I took a drink of wine.

His abiding passion and preoccupation, apart from writing and alcohol, was women. His classic novel of the same name was published in 1978. In it he recounts a series of abusive and dysfunctional relationships. Though laced with his trademark humour throughout, Women reveals the underlying fear of commitment, rejection and underlying distrust when it came to his many encounters with the opposite sex, resulting in an inability to treat a relationship as much more than an exercise in psychological and emotional warfare.

There is always one woman to save you from another and as that woman saves you she makes ready to destroy.

As well as prose, Bukowski wrote a prodigious quantity of poetry, again chronicling life on the margins among the down and outs, prostitutes, and drunks in cheap hotels, dive bars and on the street. When it came to politics, he remained resolutely disdainful.

The difference between a democracy and a dictatorship is that in a democracy you vote first and take orders later; in a dictatorship you don't have to waste your time voting.

He excoriated the Beats during the fifties and during the sixties he sat out the anti-Vietnam war movement and concomitant upsurge in youth rebellion, even though by this time his poetry and short stories were regularly appearing in the underground press and he was in demand to appear around the country giving readings of his work. Appearing in public was something he loathed, however, and typically he would appear drunk and incoherent and end up spending the bulk of the reading trading insults with his audience.

In terms of influences, Bukowski's work belongs in the tradition of Dostoevsky, Celine, Jean Genet, Henry Miller, and John Fante, writers who chronicled life at the bottom of society and were able to find poetry in the most base and desperate aspects of the human condition. But what sets Bukowski apart from those just mentioned is the absence of ornamentation in his prose, lending it a deceptive simplicity and clarity which enhanced its impact. Later writers whose work reflects his influence include the likes of Raymond Carver, Hubert Selby Jnr, and James Kelman.

After years of poverty, Bukowski's fortunes finally changed when his work was discovered by John Martin, publisher and owner of a small, independent publishing house, Black Sparrow Press, in the late sixties. Martin immediately recognised the genius in Bukowski's writing and published his first and most popular novel Post Office in 1971, a chronicle of the 13 years the writer spent working for the US Postal Service.

Thereafter, Bukowski committed most of his subsequent work to Black Sparrow Press in a relationship that continued until his death from leukaemia in 1994 at the age of seventy three.

By the 1980s Bukowski was a cause celebre both in underground literary circles and in Hollywood, with young actors such as Sean Penn and Mickey Rourke paying homage to the man and his work. This was reflected in the fact that both vied to play his character in the movie based on his life, Barfly (1987). Penn even offered to play the part for as little as a dollar in salary. Ultimately, though, Bukowski favoured Rourke for the role, with the writer himself making a cameo appearance and Faye Dunaway playing his lover. Bukowski wrote the script and described his experience of the movie business in the novel Hollywood (1989).

Despite losing out on the role in the movie, Penn kept up a close relationship with Bukowski until the writer's death. Asked later for his thoughts on Bukowski's life, Penn said of him that, "he wasn't irreverent. He was a man without reverence."