WINE, WOMEN AND WORK: The World of Charles Bukowski
Man's Condition. Inconstancy, boredom, anxiety. (Pascal: Pensées)
From the beginning I had all the qualifications for the occupation of author: obscurity penury and, I hoped, honesty, to which I could add ill hap, for he who is not enticed by the siren, misfortune, is a poltroon. (Edward Dahlberg: Confessions)
An intellectual is a man who says a simple thing in a difficult way; an artist is man who says a difficult thing in a simple way. (Charles Bukowski: Notes of a dirty old man)
Charles Bukowski was born in Andernach, Germany in 1920, emigrating with his parents to the USA at the age of two. He grew up in Los Angeles and now lives in San Pedro, California. Like Jack Kerouac and Henry Miller, he is a prolific, ribald and uneven; like them Bukowski has been much maligned and recognition has been long delayed, but he is now widely translated if not influential. Also like Kerouac and Miller, he continues to be anathema to the British literary establishment. Bukowski has German ancestry in common with Miller, but there the similarities cease. Bukowski rarely gets sloppy, verbose or pretentious as both Miller and Kerouac could become — at least not in his prose work, which is, with the recent welcome publication in England of three Bukowski novels, POST OFFICE, FACTOTUM, and WOMEN, what I want to discuss.
His novels, like his excellent short stories, grip the reader from the opening paragraph. Bukowski never indulges in purple passages or very detailed descriptions. He avoids unnecessary adjectives, reflective pauses, streams of consciousness. His episodic, freewheeling narratives are absolutely direct and unadorned and move at a terrific pace. His world is the urban jungle, his customary haunts racetracks, bars, seedy lodgings and restaurants: within these locales encounters, whether conversational or physical, usually display a curious combination of sardonic hostility and anarchic hilarity that Bukowski has forged into his own inimitable style. 'Forged' is the operative word, for let no one be deceived: Bukowski is by no means the artless, aimless, anti-Literary writer he might appear on a careless first reading. This sort of pared-down, fast-moving writing is difficult to achieve and very far from being naif, while the alter ego or literary persona of the drunken priapic wild man Henry Chinaski, streetwise yet sensitive, losing more than winning, but always, always surviving, is a memorable creation whether wholly fictional or utterly autobiographical. In Bukowski such basically irrelevant distinctions are blurred, all is grist to his mill, all fit for literature: indeed, as he writes in WOMEN: "Fiction is an improvement on life"
We infer from sporadic asides throughout his work that he has read and admired Dostoevsky, Celine, Kafka and Knut Hamsun — with all of whom he has affinities; that sentimentality and fake heroics don't impress him, and that although he himself has been compared to one particular over-rated Nobelwinner, to Bukowski being honest is more important than being Ernest.
One warms to Bukowski, too, when he makes statements like "outside of Dreiser, T. Wolfe was the worst American writer ever born." But the game of comparisons and influences can only provide occasional clues: in the space available I want to assure potential readers of Bukowski that he is not the illiterate macho Caliban or tedious oafish cocksman some critics would have us dismiss, but a serious writer who is also scathingly and outrageously funny. He himself is aware of the latter paradox and makes much of it, shamelessly switching from humour to horror, from ferocity to farce, as swiftly as he changes jobs in FACTOTUM and women in WOMEN. This said, let's look at the earliest and perhaps most tightly constructed of these three novels, POST OFFICE.
Written in a series of short, numbered segments, many of them self-contained anecdotes, POST OFFICE presents a gallery of neurotics, nymphos, lushes, loonies and losers — the sweaty smelly groin of an American big city. What happens? Henry Chinaski works several years for the LA Post Office, leaves, marries Joyce a rich nympho and then, partly to escape her, partly through pressure from her hostile family and partly because she insists on his 'proving himself’, he rejoins the PO, whereupon Joyce promptly divorces him. What else? His alcoholic commonlaw wife Betty dies. He finds, so he thinks, a good woman, who actually sets him up for a knifing before Chinaski turns the tables on her and her pimp. He has a daughter by an ageing wouldbe writer, Fay, who leaves him for a hippie commune in New Mexico. He gets dizzy spells, resigns aged almost fifty, wakes up to a hangover and decides to write POST OFFICE. The books spans eleven years in its 160 pages, and this telescoping of time, together with the wild bawdy, the fast wisecracks, and especially the crazed anarchic logic and the dreamlike physical and verbal aggression (perhaps in part a legacy from Kafka and Celine as mentioned) are all expertly blended by Bukowski into what we'll come to recognize as his own very personal voice. Unromantic, wry and rapid, Bukowski can often be tersely memorable:
"her mouth flicked in and out of my mouth like a tiny lost snake" or "Courage comes from the belly — all else is desperation".
He also has compassion and a working knowledge of the varieties of loneliness he describes:
The alcoholic melancholy of the occasion, a failed reunion, with the seemingly clumsy, half-bewildered repetitions in fact subtly emphasising the awkwardness of loss itself, is even more impressive in context. Bukowski like most good writers must be read in copious draughts, not merely sipped. And his Chinaski may be a wise guy but he's an innocent too; "I couldn't help thinking, god, all these mailmen do is drop in their letters and get laid. This is the job for me, oh yes yes yes." However, both male-men and mailman are confounded: nothing quite turns out as expected, and whether Chinaski’s running battles with individual or organizational lunancy are won or lost, the result is hardbitten, racy and entertaining. Bukowski gives this clever little existential fable for our time the irresistible sharp edge of a good thriller.
FACTOTUM starts with wanderer-outcast Chinaski arriving in New Orleans, avoiding another of those sexual invitations too casual to be anything but a pimp's ambush for the unwary. Chinaski is looking for rooms and work, and in this novel the sheer banality, the general pointlessness of most work is stressed. The NewYork Times has compared Bukowski to George Orwell, but Bukowski never goes slumming, never patronizes the working classes, working or idling, and never assumes the intellectual's self-conscious air of 'detached reportage on Bohemian low Life’ or any such clichéd over-simplification. Bukowski takes the life as he finds it — and on the whole doesn't much like it.
In FACTOTUM Chinaski is much younger than in POST OFFICE: the period is the early Forties. There’s less of a 'plot’ than in the earlier book and more wandering: New Orleans, Philadelphia, St Louis... Then Chinaski reaches LA where the main action is set. He moves to Miami returns to LA, and the story ends as it began, as if in mid-air, this time with the protagonist watching a burlesque show — a situation perhaps symbolic of much, or of nothing at all.
Bukowski is well aware of the transience of life (and the pulsing style of his books seems to reflect this awareness), but he never moralizes or romanticizes. "The myth of the starving artist was a hoax", he declares, and Chinaski doesn't kid himself either about the temporary hence imperfect nature of his pet escape-route and panacea: "When you drank the world was still out there, but for the moment it didn't have you by the throat," Descriptions of the wino life abound — and would encourage few converts, to say the least. Gambling too is as uncertain and unsatisfactory in the long run as that other wouldbe pleasurable escape from the meaningless grind of routine — sex. And sex itself can become a meaningless grind: Bukowski’s sexual descriptions are accurate, forthright and therefore 'shocking'. They're also full of grim humour: horrific accounts of being (half-unwillingly) fellated by an ageing whore, or of the ravages of and remedies for crabs. Why read such things? Believe it or not, Bukowski describes the wincing, awful, pathetic absurdity of human existence with such gusto and relish that he makes you laugh out loud. He may laugh from the lower depths out of bravado and you may laugh perhaps from relief at not being there — but the net result is anyhow tonic not depressing.
We follow Chinaski's wretched progress as he puts up subway posters, works in a dogbiscuit factory, cleans windows, slaves away as a shipping clerk, in a clothing store, assorted warehouses, a bakery, hotels, as a lavatory attendant, and so on. He indulges in some petty thieving and optimistically sends stories to magazines. Other than that — gambling, drink and sex - the Holy Trinity of the exploited...
Chinaski is always in trouble with Authority, has no real friends and when out of desperation he does return to his parents' house it certainly isn't home: "I knew that my father would charge me atrocious prices for room, board and laundry and that he would also be careful to list me as a dependent on his income tax return" His father promptly taxes the prodigal with pious platitudes like "any man who wants work can find work", and father, mother and son end up, literally, fighting! T. Wolfe or no, you can't go home again... So much for meaningful personal relationships.
As for the larger social issues, they leave Chinaski cold. It's no surprise that he's unacceptable for the draft. Remember Pearl Harbor? a short story from his collection SOUTH OF NO NORTH is worth quoting here:
In FACTOTUM he doesn't let rip with the epithets, but simply observes: "The war had always been at best a vague reality to me, but now it was over. And the jobs that had always been difficult to get became more so." Indeed the phantasmagoria of unemployment on the one hand and sweated labour on the other, so powerfully portrayed in FACTOTUM, recalls the writing of B. Traven — another German-American with narrative verve, an anarchic attitude and feeling for 'the wretched of the earth’ :
The loner naturally rejects this dreamlike mechanical toil without end or satisfaction, though as with Hamsun (whom Bukowski admires) he must earn a bare minimum to keep starvation at bay. At moments of extreme pressure or lightheaded relaxation a sort of hallucinatory, alternative reality is glimpsed, and this surreal streak runs throughout Bukowski's work.
POST OFFICE, for instance, ended with the hungover Chinaski, all passion for the moment spent, wondering what to do with the pickled human heart labelled Francis -- left by a medical student on his coffee-table. FACTOTUM has a marvellous little fantasy-episode, quite self-contained, when Chinaski, sleeping in the park to avoid trouble, experiences a vision of sorts:
Gene Kelly meets Kafka, courtesy of Val Lewton! This demented yet distanced weirdness is present in many Bukowski stories, some satirical, some nightmarish, their titles memorably suggestive in themselves, e.g.: The Gut-Wringing Machine (Swiftian fable); All The Assholes in the World and Mine (haemorrhoid operation): No Way to Paradise (homunculi) Love for $17.50 (a man enamoured of a wax window mannequin); Dr Nazi and Maja Thurup (the well-endowed cannibal). In others, like Life And Death In the Charity Ward, describing a close call with death itself, the humour grows still blacker, but no one could laugh at that bleak and horrific story The Fiend — a brutal piece about a child-rapist, nor at The Murder of Ramon Vasquez (based upon silent movie star Novarro's ghastly end). In these explorations of the urban Inferno Bukowski is quite as chilling and unforgettable as those other superb chroniclers of American decay, Hubert Selby and Jerzy Kosinski. Bukowski has not been given credit for his wide range.
With WOMEN, the most recent of these novels, we are back to the broader, bawdy knockabout comedy Bukowski does so well. Chinaski, now something of a literary lion and sexagenarian sexfiend, has just published his Selected Works, and his biography is being written by (lord preserve us!) "an anarchist from Beverly Hills, Ben Solvnag" Bukowski fans needn't worry, though, the old satyr hasn't gone — as it were — soft. There's plenty of self-mockery and his views haven't changed. The man who could write that hilarious story Great Poets Die in Steaming Pots of Shit is entitled to deflate pseuds mercilessly. "It was best to stay away from other writers and just do your work, or just not do your work." Survivor Chinaski knows how fame dilutes and destroys so many writers: "Readings diminished me. They were soul-sucks," he declares, adding with disarming honesty: "Readings got you a piece of ass sometimes." He never pretends to disdain fame and money however, while remaining contemptuous of arty posturers and 'public’ writers. As he wrote in NOTES OF A DIRTY OLD MAN, "When you leave your typewriter you leave your machine-gun and the rats come pouring through", and writing is the only war that interests him, an essentially private struggle, the individual versus time and the void. Yet the less necessary battle of the sexes and his frequent bouts with the booze leave writer Chinaski distracted, bloody but unbowed — and the reader reeling if constantly entertained.
Perhaps one key to WOMEN is a maxim attributed to Lydia, the crazed sculptress with whom Chinaski is entangled for much of the book. "If you want to drink, drink; if you want to fuck, throw the bottle away," she tells him. Chinaski himself realises: "My problem was that I wanted to do both." He can justify both activities: "If something bad happens you drink in order to celebrate; and if nothing happens you drink to make something happen." In an earlier short story, Three Women, Bukowski wrote: "Each women fucked just a bit differently, and that' s what kept a man going, that's what kept a man trapped." Rejecting the concept of bourgeois marriage he added: "What did marriage mean? Marriage meant a sanctified fuck and a sanctified fuck always and finally, without fail, got boring, got to be a job. But that's what the world wanted: some poor son of a bitch, trapped and unhappy, with a job to do." Whereas in FACTOTUM virtually any job will do, in WOMEN virtually any woman will — and does. The more he struggles to be independent and remain the rebellious loner he has always been, the more Chinaski is enmeshed: as well as celebrating the female, WOMEN describes, often derides, the "dumb hunger" of the penis, that mindless, selfish, absurd, often vicious snake, There are willing women galore — frenzied Lydia, pill-freak redhead Tammie, tall socialite Joanna, and scores of others. The novel is both the longest and the weakest of the trio, inventive and bitingly funny though it generally is, because it is in effect without development, formless. By the end Chinaski is feeding a stray cat and awaiting the next female admirer who has just phoned him: will she be a phoney or a Muse, user or used? Will she get the better of Chinaski or not?
I suspect that some feminists might mistakenly vilify a writer like Bukowski. He isn't crass, insensitive or endlessly self-congratulatory; he does understand women, although he doesn't always like them and often uses them. Certainly he's not a chauvinist; he sees the droll side of life too consistently and truthfully for that. I only wish there were a female Bukowski, in fact, pulling no punches and revelling in all the splendid diversity (and inherent absurdity) of sex. Maybe one will emerge. Bukowski deliberately, brilliantly, tackles most of the intimate and/or sexual subjects other writers avoid - blackheads, piles, crabs, vomiting, hangovers, collapses physical and mental — you name them! His work as a whole paints a frightening and funny panorama of the lower depths of the American Dream, which in itself is nothing but a joke in bad taste, black farce and raw lunacy incarnate. He will hook you or infuriate you, but I defy you not to laugh.
If WOMEN seems the least convincing of these three novels, it may be that I find Chinaski’s newfound (if hardwon) literary reputation takes some of the edge off that unique, angry, laconic growl. I hope the stoic malcontent doesn't become the indulgent hedonist, although I wouldn't begrudge Bukowski himself any recognition or wealth — both long overdue in his case.
I urge British readers to go out and buy all three of these novels, together with any other Bukowski books available in imported editions from specialist bookshops, and to savour the work of this powerful, grotesquely comic, absolutely unpretentious author. If storytelling is a lost art, Bukowski has certainly rediscovered it. But be warned, remember (to end on Bukowski’s own words) that "the public takes from a writer, or a writing, what it needs and lets the remainder go. But what they take is usually what they need least and what they let go is what they need most"
First appeared in Palantir ed Jim Burns 1979
BIBLIOGRAPHICAL NOTE: BUKOWSKI'S UK PUBLICATIONS
POST OFFICE (Moat Hall Books, 1980. £1.25. Paperback
distributed by W. H. Allen/Star Books)
Of the three novels reviewed above, Alan Ross first published POST OFFICE in his London Magazine Editions, 1974, together with a selection of short stories, LIFE AND DEATH IN THE CHARITY WARD. Other collections referred to or quoted from in my article are NOTES OF A DIRTY OLD MAN (City Lights, USA, 1973) — consisting of pieces written for the US underground newspaper Open City in the late Sixties and establishing Bukowski as the funniest columnist since Myles na Gopaleen/FlannO'Brien — and SOUTH OF NO NORTH (Black Sparrow, USA, 1973).
As Poet: Bukowski is essentially anecdotal and his poetry nowhere as impressive as his prose, though worth looking at. A selection appeared in the now defunct Penguin Modern Poets series, alongside (as I recall) Lamantia and Norse, less interesting American poets. Work by Bukowski also appeared occasionally in Peter Finch's excellent magazine Second Aeon during the late Sixties—early Seventies.