On Bukowski


Charles Bukowski, the poet laureate of skid row and the mad old sleazebag of American letters, was often regarded as an honorary member of the Beat Generation. Whilst it’s certain he would have been familiar with their work, he never hung with Ginsberg or Burroughs or Kerouac and probably didn’t think much of them. To quote Hot Water Music:

“What is your advice to young writers?”

“Drink, fuck, and smoke a lot of cigarettes.”

Kerouac may have admired the line, but Bukowski was a man of principled structure in his prose and would probably have agreed with Capote who commented wryly on On the Road

“That’s not writing that’s typing.”

The Irish author Roddy Doyle said of Bukowski his writing was one of “highly controlled clumsiness”, which, if you are a fan of this deceptively well-read and gambling drunk, may make a lot of sense to you.

Bukowski spent his life in the skids of Hollywood, drinking and whoring and working low rent jobs – staying in the worst accommodation before his career picked up in the 1970s. His breakthrough hit, Post Office, ends with one of the most uplifting stoic lines in literary history after a back-breaking tale of post office work, alcoholism and the death of the love of his life:

In the morning it was morning and I was still alive.

Maybe I’ll write a novel, I thought. And then I did.

For such a hard-boiled tale to end on such a positive twist sums up Bukowski perfectly. He is poor. He rarely gets a win at the races or a piece of ass. He drinks like a fish. But he is a positive stoic and he does not ever give up. If life is hard, life can get easier.

My only ambition is not to be anything at all, he writes in Hot Water Music, it seems the most sensible thing.

Earlier in the book his alter ego Henry Chianski impresses some writers by saying:

Genius might be the ability to say a profound thing in a simple way.

Bukowski was born in Germany in the early twenties and spoke German from a young age, possibly the reason his prose had a Germanic strictness that lent it its charm. His autobiographical book Ham on Rye has detailed descriptions of his childhood experiences including seeing his uncle chain smoking in a hospital bed whilst dying of TB. He also vividly remembers his abusive father being confronted by a shotgun-toting farmer after they decided to steal a basket full of oranges.

It was difficult to understand. We were the children in the poorest schools, we had the poorest, least educated parents, most of us ate terrible food, yet boy for boy we were feared.

Beaten by an unloving father with a strap for any misdemeanour (the dedication to the book reads to the fathers) Hank grows up a loner, but a tough kid with a creative streak. Given an assignment to write about President Hoover’s recent visit, he embellishes a spectacular tale that stymied the teacher, makes the girls turn, and makes the bullies avoid him.

So that’s what they want: beautiful lies. People were fools. It was going to be easy for me.

The longer the cruelty and toughness of Ham on Rye goes on, the more it appears Salinger’s iconic teen wetback Holden Caulfield is a spoilt brat who’d had a ride through Chianksi’s world and was now just waiting in tears for his parents to section him.

Bukowski died in 1994, but not before penning the screenplay to Barfly with Mickey Rourke as Chianski and Fay Dunaway as Jane, his down and dirty lover. He was quoted as saying he wrote the screenplay not for money, but “as an intellectual exercise”.

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