d o c u m e n t a r y
He's the Dirty Old Man, the wicked, vulgar poet from East Hollywood. He's Buk. He writes line after line about racetracks and bars and rooming-houses and whores, about fools and academics and the sewing-circle poets who write him breathless letters about their sex-lives and their Art. He cuts us all down to actual size, reminds us of our odors and excretions—and yet, so much in me doesn't want to call him a negative man. So much in me wants to talk about the tragedy and beauty that he has somehow hidden in each of his novels and in at least the better of his stories and poems, hidden amongst words so spare and ragged I'd swear there's no room left for any meaning.
His writing is confident and direct and unflinching and it will make you uncomfortable at times. There's a certain quality to documentary filmmaking, something involving the way people talk and breathe and move when they're actually talking and breathing and moving instead of acting. It's easy to spot a documentary, immediately, the seedy reality of colors and details and blemishes, flies swarming and phones ringing and children doing whatever it is children do (but loudly, which is the point). It's that uncomfortable quality, that unapologetic reality, that marks Bukowski's work as something more than it first seems. He's a documentarian of a poet, of a writer—and that's not the sort of statement you're going to hear about a writer, because that's what the poets and the realists of the writers are trying to be, are supposed to be. What Bukowski reminds us is how far off the mark most of them are.
Charles Bukowski is the best poet we've come up with since (at the very least) the Beats; he's also one of our better novelists and short-story writers. He's prolific and determined and original, he is the outsider, the underground, the extreme in contemporary American literature. He wallows in the grit of his surroundings, he holds up his own character-flaws and weaknesses—his drunken stumbling, his fear of and desire for women, his stage fright, hidden behind a mist of Bourbon and bluster, his legendary Hemingway Complex. He builds his own personal literature upon the fault-line between the weak and the numbed, between the intellectual and the thug. Bukowski is a man with brutal acne scars covering his enormous head, with a large frame and an amazing beer gut and, as he admits repeatedly, abnormally large testicles. Yet he has small, delicate hands. He is, to one degree or another, an artist, a misogynist, a bully, a drunk, a lover, a poet, a thinker, a vile genius, and a dead human being.
h e n r y c h a r l e s b u k o w s k i ( 1 9 2 0 - 1 9 9 4 )
Henry Charles Bukowski was born August 16, 1920, in Andernach, Germany. His father, also named Henry, was an American serviceman and his mother, Katherine, a German. The family soon moved back to the U.S., to Los Angeles, where Bukowski lived most of the rest of his life.
Henry Bukowski, Sr., was an authoritarian, an abusive husband and father, and a devout believer in the American Dream. During the Great Depression, while unemployed, he would leave home and return at the same time every day, to keep up the appearance of a job. Bukowski spent his childhood hating his father, hating the popular belief that a man's worth is determined by his job, hating the weakness in his mother. And hating, it seems, himself as well.
Bukowski was sheltered from other children throughout his younger years, and when he reached high school, enormous boils appeared on his face and back, setting him apart and finally leaving deep scars. He turned to books, to the public library, embracing the alienation that would eventually compose the core of his work. He began to write stories. He attended Los Angeles City College for a period after high school, then worked a number of low-paying, excruciating jobs. He published a story titled "Aftermath of a Lengthy Rejection Slip" in Story magazine, then stopped writing for nearly a decade.
Later in his life, Bukowski would write what is, in effect, his autobiography, in a number of stories and poems and, most significantly, five of his six novels. Ham on Rye, for example, details roughly the first 21 years of his life, and Factotum covers the decade following that.
Bukowski was arrested and imprisoned for a short period of time for avoiding the draft at the start of World War II. He had failed to report a forwarding address. He moved around the country, drinking, working when he absolutely had to and being fired (or, sometimes, quitting) very soon after starting. This ended, finally, when Bukowski was hospitalized with a bleeding ulcer and nearly died. He was thirty-five. He was told the next drink he took would kill him. Soon after, he began drinking again, and never really stopped.
Bukowski had been working as a mail carrier for a number of years and at thirty-five, he quit. He began to write poetry. Good, clear, searing poetry. Over the next fifteen years, he would become first a cult poet—popular with the poetry underground, the small magazines and the poets who read them—then an icon with his "Notes of a Dirty Old Man" column in Open City, a weekly alternative paper in L.A. During his thirties and forties, he was married once, briefly, to a woman named Barbara Frye, whom he'd met in correspondence, watched a woman he'd lived with for years (Jane Cooney) die of alcoholism, buried his parents, fathered a girl named Marina Louise Bukowski of whom he did not have custody, and spent a dozen years working as a mail sorter.
In 1970, now fifty years old, Bukowski quit his job at the post office and in three weeks wrote his first novel, Post Office. In it, he described the previous two decades of his life and the misery of his former position. Prior to this novel, Bukowski had published a number of books of poetry, but it was Post Office that made him famous. Bukowski was able, at this point, to support himself with his writing. He publishing a collection of his "Dirty Old Man" columns and another collection of stories called Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions and General Tales of Ordinary Madness with beat publisher City Lights, and he continued to publish many books of poetry and prose with his friend John Martin's Black Sparrow Press.
In 1978, Bukowski wrote a novel about the women in his life, entitled Women, for which he forced himself to conduct painstaking research (read: lots of promiscuous sex). He then wrote a screenplay for the film Barfly (over which, when it was filmed, he had very extensive control), and a novel about the filmmaking process (Hollywood). He discovered the benefits (money) of giving public readings. He was translated in over a dozen languages and become quite famous in Europe, especially Germany and France.
Bukowski met Linda Lee Bieghle in 1977 and married her eight years later. He continued to write until stricken ill in 1988, then released another stream of poems and stories as his health improved. He wrote one final novel, a parody of pulps and detective novels, called Pulp and dedicated to "bad writing."
Bukowski died March 9, 1994, of leukemia. He was 73 years old.
During his lifetime, Bukowski published roughly forty books, most of them poetry and many of them quite long. Since his death, Black Sparrow Press has published roughly a book each year of previously uncollected poems, stories, and letters, and apparently the supply is not yet nearing exhaustion.
h e n r y c h i n a s k i
Henry Charles Bukowski was "Hank" to his friends and "Charles" when he wrote, and when he wrote autobiographical stories, more often than not, what he called himself was Henry Chinaski. An alter-ego of sorts. Much of the criticism of Bukowski hinges on whether or not he and Chinaski were really the same person. Bukowski writes about rape and women who seek violent men, and so he's attacked. He writes about drinking and sex, and so he's dismissed. While in college, Bukowski noticed a decidedly-Communist slant to the faculty and many of the students, so he feigned sympathy with Hitler--but he loathed the Fascists just as much. If you make yourself an object of ridicule, Bukowski will tear at you mercilessly, and this may just be his defining feature. There are women who seek men like Hank Chinaski, and he's written a good deal about them. Whether or not he acted the way he wrote, well, that I can't tell you. And, honestly, I really don't care.
Bukowski had an incredible sense of vision in evaluating people, in collective and in the singular. This was his talent. And what he wrote may be an indictment or it may be release papers from this lockdown modernity—but whatever it is, it hangs on our world, on us; coming down on Bukowski for the ugliness in his work, the grime, the misery, this is all just a deflection of our own responsibility.
b i b l i o g r a p h y
short fiction and essay
s e l e c t e d m e t a n o d e
poetry by Buk
s o u r c e s
any look at bukowski's life begins with his work, his autobiography, which, much like jack kerouac and his duluoz legend, is his work, nearly all of it. it is from here, more than anywhere else, that bukowski biographers draw their information.
i suggest reading ham on rye, factotum, post office, women, and hollywood (in that order) for an approximation of a cohesive autobiography.
in addition, the following have proved helpful in writing this piece:
- cherkovski, neeli. bukowski: a life, new york city, random house, 1991 — neeli cherry was a friend of bukowski for many years and provides an insider's point-of-view into bukowski's life.
- weizmann, daniel, ed. drinking with bukowski; recollections of the poet laureate of skid row, new york city, thunder's mouth press, 2000 — various essays on bukowski by friends and associates. of particular interest, a somewhat-bitter essay titled "the death of charles bukowski" by john bryan, former editor of open city.
- http://www.blacksparrowpress.com — black sparrow press published the vast majority of bukowski's works.
- news:alt.books.bukowski — like any newsgroup, incredibly obscure, informative, and infuriating.