The Self-Made Man
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."
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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