The Self-Made Man

Charles Bukowskis real art was himself

Bukowski cultivated this image carefully because it suited his artistic agenda. It wasn't exactly a false image, but—like any artist's representation of reality—it told only part of the truth. By the end of his life, Bukowski was more than financially secure. He was a wealthy and well-known artist, comparing notes on BMWs with Norman Mailer and hanging around U2 concerts with Sean Penn. The publicity surrounding the 1987 movie Barfly, for which he wrote the screenplay, had him smiling from the pages of People magazine and the Los Angeles Times.

Bukowski joked in "the secret of my endurance" that his ability to continue producing good writing despite his cushy lifestyle derived from the fact that he kept "a young boy to write my stuff now,/I keep him in a 10-foot cage with a/typewriter, feed him whiskey and raw whores,/belt him pretty good three or four times/a week." But in fact Bukowski continued to write about his own experiences, turning his movie-biz adventures into the novel Hollywood and musing on the illusions of success in some of the funnier material collected in his Septuagenarian Stew.

What remains consistent throughout his work is an aversion to what he called "lacy bullshit" and a consistently humorous approach to the hypocrisy, weakness and lunacy of daily life. There is never anything opaque or baffling about his technique, and this may in part explain the general lack of academic interest in his work. Bukowski is a writer whose meaning is always clear, a writer who is less interested in rendering common experience obscure than in stating what is evident but unmentioned. "The important thing," he wrote, "is the obvious thing that nobody is saying." There isn't much that the most persistent academic exegesis could add to or take away from what is already apparent on the page. (One exception to this is the excellent study Against the American Dream by Russell Harrison, who may have said everything that needs to be said, critically speaking.)

The fact that Bukowski is no fun for academics should not dissuade the rest of us from giving his old leaves an occasional turn. It's interesting to see how well he holds up against a writer like Raymond Carver, who is thematically similar but much more stylized —in a way that seems to date Carver already. Bukowski's prose is so affectless, so free of any associations with all the schools of writing that blossomed and died during his lifetime, that it reads as if it were written yesterday—or tomorrow, for that matter. The essential problem Bukowski tackles—of trying to find sanity and love in a bizarre and preposterously alienated world—isn't likely to go away any time soon.

It may consequently be a little premature to dismiss Bukowski. Somewhere between the boozing and the trips to the track, he managed to write his way into an important place. And, on Sounes' reading of his life, this outcome was highly deliberate. Bukowski didn't look like he was doing anything serious, and maybe he wasn't. But he pursued his particular style of folly so fervently that eventually it became something else.

Charles Bukowski: Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life by Howard Sounes; Grove Press. 309 pages. $26 hardcover.

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