The Self-Made Man

Charles Bukowskis real art was himself

When are we going to get around to saying that Charles Bukowski was a lousy writer? Can we do it now, five years after his death? Did we even need to wait this long? We're talking about a man whose endless collections of poetry read like prose—not necessarily very good prose—and whose prose often reads like some kind of adolescent-male fantasy, a self-indulgent swim through alcoholic cynicism and misogyny. Surely by now we can chuck Buk in the dustbin. Can't we?

For most academics, these questions are moot; there was never any doubt in their minds that Bukowski was second-rate, maybe even third-rate, and they certainly don't feel any need to revisit that assessment. Among ordinary readers, however, there seems to be some confusion. Bukowski's popularity, which during his lifetime was considerable in America and fairly massive in Europe, has failed to flag in the past five years, and to make matters worse, a new biography of the man has just been released. What's going on here?

The problem with Bukowski is that though he is, at his worst, a truly mediocre writer—technically sloppy and morally out to lunch—his best stuff nevertheless taps directly into an aesthetic tradition of real, enduring power. He is, in these good moments, an inheritor of Whitman's concerns with work and commonplace experience, a co-investigator with Wordsworth of "how far the language of conversation in the middle and lower classes of society is adapted to the purposes of poetic pleasure."

If Bukowski has garnered some notoriety because some of his writing is mildly pornographic solipsism, the rantings of a drunk speaking to himself, his staying power derives from the fact that he manages at times to find the voice Wordsworth and Coleridge champion in the 1802 preface to Lyrical Ballads, that of "a man speaking to men."

Howard Sounes' new biography, Charles Bukowski: Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life, doesn't try to make any kind of critical assessment of its subject's work but rather attempts to present a portrait of the writer, describing not only his famous persistence and discipline (Bukowski worked for 14 years at the Los Angeles Post Office before leaving at the age of 49 to write his first novel) but also his selfishness, cruelty and—above all—tendency to mythologize his own story. The book's skepticism is a welcome antidote to the fawning tone of Neeli Cherkovski's 1991 biography Hank, which is full of purple accounts of Bukowski's life "on the margins of society" where "Hank [that's what Bukowski's friends called him] transformed himself into a lone figure . . . liv[ing] only for the short story and the next drink."

Sounes' more cold-eyed portrait is a good starting point for a reconsideration of Bukowski's merits; by drawing our attention to the writer's deliberate construction of his own image, the biography allows us to understand more clearly the aesthetic significance of Bukowski's calculated rebelliousness. One may still conclude at the end of the book that Bukowski was a hack and a lout, but at least it is now possible to understand that the man chose to present himself that way. He thought of himself as a sublime hack, a genius of a lout, and he worked hard to make other people share that perception.

A lot of what's interesting about Sounes' work is its correction of the various myths that sprouted up around Bukowski during his lifetime (mostly as a result of his liberal application of rhetorical fertilizer). Was Bukowski born illegitimately, as he claimed on numerous occasions? No, he wasn't. Was he born into dire straits? On the contrary: his parents were obsessive about their middle-class credentials and sent the young Bukowski to the elite Los Angeles High School. As for the famous "10-year drunk" that supposedly consumed Bukowski's late 20s and early 30s, Sounes lets a photograph taken in the middle of the "binge" do the arguing for him: decked out in a double-breasted suit, our hero smiles serenely on the front lawn of his parents' house. Sounes also notes that a widely repeated bit of praise for Bukowski—Jean Genet and Jean Paul Sartre were said to have called him the "greatest American poet alive"—is apocryphal and quite possibly invented by Bukowski, as was a fake Henry Miller blurb that graced the German edition of Notes of a Dirty Old Man.

These overt misrepresentations are troubling, but they are less interesting than the subtle manipulations Bukowski made to his image as he grew more confident in his work. As Sounes points out, Bukowski lived with a great deal of discipline when it came to writing and money. He rarely let more than a few days go by without spending several hours in front of his typewriter, and he lived very frugally, clinging to the money he earned from his series of dead-end jobs and the inheritance his parents left him. What comes through in his fiction and in much of his correspondence, however, is the image of the wild drunk squandering money at the races, the Skid Row poet composing in the gutter, the restless malcontent who (as Cherkovski puts it, with typical melodrama) "gambled and drank the money away as quickly as he could" as a "protest" against "being financially secure."

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