Said Shirazi on Charles Bukowski
CITY LIGHTS PUBLISHERS
Sixteen years after his death from leukemia, Charles Bukowski remains a literary outsider, albeit a very popular one. There is a 2003 documentary in which Bono, Tom Waits, and Sean Penn sing his praises, and three of his poetry readings from 1970, 1979, and 1980 are now available on DVD. (People watching them are also renting Puppetry of the Penis and How To Draw Comics The Marvel Way.) In 2007 Ecco, now an imprint of HarperCollins, reissued several Bukowski titles in new editions, and this year San Francisco’s venerable City Lights has come out with their second volume of his uncollected stories and essays, which may at last signal the end of his many posthumous publications.
ABSENCE OF THE HERO
Uncollected Stories and Essays, Vol. 2: 1946-1992
By Charles Bukowski
300 pp. City Lights Publishers
Paper. $16.95 .
City Lights has a little history with Bukowski, having published an
early collection of his newspaper columns and his first book of stories
before he found his lifelong patron and publisher, John Martin. In 1969
Martin gave Bukowski a stipend of a hundred dollars a month for life
(almost six hundred dollars in today’s money) and a promise to publish
all of his work at the Black Sparrow Press, which he named for a common
bird that scavenges in trash. This support allowed him to produce the
series of autobiographical novels — Post Office (supposedly
written in three weeks), Factotum, Women, and Ham
on Rye — which cemented his legend. Some of the old Black Sparrow
editions are still available through an arrangement with publisher David
R. Godine. The distinctive large-format volumes with matte covers stand
out on bookstore shelves, as does the quality of the thick acid-free
paper and the bindings, which are hand-sewn rather than glued. Born as
a sixties mimeograph poet, it was here at the top of the small press
world that Bukowski peaked, big in the “littles” as they used to say.
Bukowski was a kind of bohemian but not officially a Beat. Older than Kerouac and Ginsberg, he viewed them as celebrities and rivals rather than kindred spirits and with a cold eye discounted the value of much of what came after Howl. Henry Miller, whom Bukowski professes to find dull outside of the sex scenes, would figure as only a distant relation, sharing some of the same forebears in Knut Hamsun, D. H. Lawrence, and Louis-Ferdinand Céline. In a way Bukowski is closer to Anaïs Nin, a cult hero with whom admirers strongly identify, rather than a respected artist producing standalone literary works. As someone who often proselytizes for a certain set of social values instead of creating an object that is beautiful in itself, he occupies the same shadowy limbo as Ayn Rand.
Born in 1920, Bukowski’s tastes were formed before jazz or rock even existed. He would sit down to type at the kitchen table with a bottle and the radio blasting classical music, and when he stayed with friends he drank two six-packs before bed every night. He was launched as an alcoholic at a time when many still believed there was a link between creativity and liquor, in the era of Hart Crane, Cheever, and Berryman, only one of whom survived. If the hard-drinking Raymond Carver hadn’t been remade as an ironic minimalist by the heavy editorial hand of Gordon Lish, he might have wound up following Bukowski’s footsteps more closely, as evidenced by an interesting poetic monologue he wrote in Bukowski’s voice after seeing him read in the early seventies.
Bukowski was 4-F in the second World War while Mailer was out hunting
Japs and glory, and his first publication was in Whit Burnett’s legendary Story magazine,
the same place J. D. Salinger got his start. He did a stint of odd jobs
like Steinbeck or Nelson Algren, living a bum’s life longer and more
authentically it seemed because he had given up writing at the time.
Before he started getting paid to do readings at colleges, he supplemented his income writing what he referred to as “suck-fuck” stories for hardcore skin mags like Hustler and Oui. It would be hard to find another man whose view of women is as distorted and grotesque as Bukowski’s. Only Robert Crumb is in his league, and yet both of them seemed to attract women not in spite of but actually because of their views. Perhaps these women liked the attention nonetheless or sensed a need behind the hatred. Perhaps fame was enough for them or any mention of sex at all could arouse some.
Bukowski’s real genius lay in making it with ugly women, neckless and bearded monstrosities whose only virtues were in being human and being able to make a man a sandwich. In this regard, he was as American as Ben Franklin or the blues. Hideous himself, he had little choice in the matter. He was fortunate to be so ugly that he could make it with ugly women and not have them fall in love with him. Bukowski would have probably felt comfortable around an up-front woman like Mae West, a prizefighter’s gal from Bushwick, or Bessie Smith begging for a little sugar in her bowl.
Every page of his is hot off the rollers. He came from the era of Runyon and Winchell, a time when men like Jim Thompson would steal a typewriter and compose an entire novel in one sitting, when the movies and TV were pure and unadulterated shit, and Pop was still pulp. When he finally got a word processor he only became more prolific.
It’s always a bad sign when the author’s name is bigger than the title: BECKETT, DELILLO, BUKOWSKI. Absence of the Hero, as City Lights’ new volume is called, collects some early garbage, an unsuccessful manifesto, some reviews, a terrible story about some people who pick up hippie hitchhikers, crucify and then barbecue them, a fond remembrance of an editor, some leftover columns. None of it is totally worthless, but a lot of it is not that great. There is an embarrassingly bad column about L.A. drivers, and the few stories that are obviously made up, like one about a husband whose finger gets bitten off by his wife’s pet monkey, don’t really come off.
From the essays we learn that Bukowski approved of Genet and particularly hated Creeley’s work, which makes this perhaps as good a place as any to say something that can not be said enough, that all of today’s so-called experimental poetry is in fact nothing more than academic poetry. Bukowski’s stories don’t end with the Joycean epiphanies we were trained to produce or the dying fall of a poignant image that points to the emptiness of it all à la The New Yorker. Two of the best pieces are from bygone wank mags Adam and Fling, which may be why they were overlooked in previous collections. “Sound and Passion” is about a woman he loved but lost when he got evicted and she had to take up with someone who could support her, and “Vern’s Wife” tells the story of a woman who’s come out from Florida to get an abortion.
I also liked a modest little essay called “The House of Horrors,” which was previously unpublished, and which sensibly reminds us that most bad writers don’t work hard enough, most good writers are boring in person because they save it for the page, and reading too much is bad for writers after they are young. In a similar vein, the book ends with what might be one of the last things he wrote, in which he says that most poets like most people have no real experience of life and consequently nothing to write about.
Bukowski laments the dawn of the high-rise, preferring the older courtyard apartments where you could see into other people’s lives. In a column from 1974 he writes:
The modern apartment-dwellers are all the same; they spend much time scrubbing and waxing and dusting and vacuuming; everything glistens — stoves, refrigerators, tables; the dishes are washed immediately after eating; the water in the toilet is blue; towels are used only once; doors are left open, blinds parted, and under the lamps you can see them sitting quietly reading a safe paperback or watching a laugh-track family-affair comedy on a huge TV screen (160).
Why did Bukowski write so fast? Because he was a drunk and a maniac, because he often wrote for money, because he wanted to get it all out, because though he cooked up his own style he was not a prose stylist or a polisher, but also I think because like Hemingway he was always afraid that one day he would wake up and not be able to write anymore. He did not think of writing as an inalienable verbal skill but rather as a contest of will and spirit, an eminently revocable grace. A gambler, he wanted to keep rolling the dice while he was hot. The result is that most of his stuff feels like talk on paper. His work is so entertaining that it sidesteps the question of serious literary value, and one reads it the way one does letters and diaries, with a different set of expectations.
Because the collection spans nearly fifty years, you actually see him getting better. In the beginning he flirts with existentialism, but already we can see his sharp eye for detail. He gradually learns to make his stories quieter so the events in them have the mysterious weight of reality. He seems to be one of those rare writers who learns not by emulating a given model but by reading his own stuff as he writes and rediscovering for himself the dignity of form. He is not a reviser, but he writes so much that each story serves as a draft for the next one, with their recurring elements of comic sex, drunken bashes, and the invading half-men he always greets with disdain: bad poets, professors, Marxists.
A low-life raconteur and a dimestore perv, Bukowski was the life of the party night after night. When you open any of his books, that party goes on.
Published in the fall 2010 issue of Fifth Wednesday Journal.
Said Shirazi lives near Princeton, New Jersey. His story “A Feynman Is Good When Hard” appeared in the Fall 2007 issue of Fifth Wednesday Journal. His essays on Dylan, Harold Bloom, Beckett, Morrissey, Ashbery, and Derrida are online at Printculture.com.