Arts: Highlights from a low life

The writer Charles Bukowski died in 1994, yet his legend lives on. Indeed, it's been industrialised.
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The Independent Culture
One badge reads "Nobody's ugly after 2am"; another says, "I'm lying, but believe me it's true". Both are quotes from Charles Bukowski, the American poet and author who died in 1994. On the one hand the badges, produced for an exhibition in London, are frivolous pieces of merchandise; on the other, they are signifiers of the immense appeal to popular culture of the man referred to by critics as "the flophouse laureate".

He also said - though it wouldn't fit on a badge - "Even though I write about the human race, the further away I am from them, the better I feel. Two inches is great. Two miles is great. Two thousand miles is beautiful."

Misanthropy is part of the Bukowski allure; certainly it was no deterrent to the 3,000 or so devotees who made the pilgrimage to a 1996 exhibition of his first editions, Farah slacks, handkerchiefs, betting slips, T- shirts, pens, ashtrays, bottle openers, reading glasses and even his sleeping-mask.

The spin-offs since his death include a rash of memoirs (one, by an old girlfriend, was called Blowing My Hero), movies, CDs, videos, documentaries, fanzines and websites. Universities buy up his letters and collectors fight over the few surviving editions of his early books. As many poems as were printed in his lifetime (some of them of questionable quality) await eventual publication, and though the whole story has yet to be told, Howard Sounes's excellent new biography, Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life, is an excellent place to start.

Dirty realism came easily to Bukowski and he came to dominate the genre with his chronicles of drinking, whoring and gambling.

"If something terrible happens," he wrote in Women, "you drink to forget it; if something good happens you drink to celebrate... and if nothing happens, you drink to make something happen."

Once described as "a big hunchback, with a ravaged, pockmarked face, decayed, nicotine-stained teeth and pain-filled eyes," he made an unlikely celebrity. From drifter beginnings, working at odd jobs in spurts then writing with a pencil stub in freezing lodgings, came more than 45 books of poetry and prose, translated into more than a dozen languages. After his death there was even the obligatory tussle over the million-dollar estate.

Bukowski's widow, Linda, considered opening their San Pedro home as a museum. A couple of years after his death Kevin Ring, editor of the English magazine Beat Scene, published AD Winans' memoir The Charles Bukowski/Second Coming Years, including a poem by Bukowski that gave what Ring says were "explicit directions on how to get to [his] house. We sent her the book and thought, `Oh, she'll like this,' and she said, `I've got the book - great, but I'm going to kill you'."

So what's the fuss about? Sounes describes the Bukowski philosophy as "a rejection of drudgery and imposed rules, of mendacity and pretentiousness; an acceptance that human lives are often wretched and that people are frequently cruel to one another, but that life can also be beautiful, sexy and funny."

Bukowski realised early on that the trick lay in being himself. From Ernest Hemingway and John Fante he took a stripped-down style, heavy on dialogue - "the spoken word nailed to paper", as the critic John Corrington put it.

Bukowski was born in 1920 and was nearly 50, pockmarked and pot-bellied, when his career took off, the low-life counterpoint to a cultural revolution predicated upon youth and beauty. His break came when John Martin, the manager of an office supply company, sold off his library of first editions to set up Black Sparrow Press. In 1971, Bukowski quit his Post Office job (a postman for two years and sorter for nine) to write full-time for Black Sparrow which, largely through his earning power, built up an annual turnover of more than $1m.

There was plenty of time to entertain the procession of women desperate for an encounter with the man behind "Notes of a Dirty Old Man", the column he wrote for the Los Angeles alternative paper Open City, and at night he would stroll up to his local coffee stand, where he would often meet a comic book distributor, George DiCaprio (father of Leo). In Sounes' biography, DiCaprio recalls Christmas Eve, 1975. He was washing up after dinner with his mother when a drunken Bukowski burst in. "You know it's just a few inches that separates a man from paradise," he said, his voice rising to a yell, "that prevents a man from sucking his own cock!"

Though he was never without a voice in his own country, Bukowski has always spoken most loudly to European sensibilities - the 1971 novel Post Office sold 75,000 at home and 500,000 copies abroad. In Germany, the country his parents left when he was two, he built up a huge following through his readings, the Germans seeing him, he said, as a mixture of "Bogart, Hemingway and Jack the Ripper." They loved him in France, too, after his drunken appearance on a TV talk show. After asking to see more of a female guest's legs - to see how good a writer she was, he said - and calling the host a "fucking son of a fucking bitch asshole," he bid her au revoir.

"He didn't remember anything, of course," recalls Barbet Schroeder, director of the film Barfly, "but the whole of France was running to buy his books."

There were two earlier European films, Crazy Love (which Bukowski considered the best account of his work), and Tales of Ordinary Madness, starring Ben Gazzara, whose portrayal of him Bukowski hated, saying he had "eyes like a constipated man sitting on the pot straining to crap".

Grudging recognition finally came from the literary mainstream on the back of Barfly, the Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway vehicle for which Bukowski wrote the screenplay, and in which he appeared as a drunk. He didn't need much of a screen test.

"Fame is the last whore," he wrote in the poem "Supposedly Famous", and the financial security accrued from Barfly's modest success - he drove to his beloved racecourse in a BMW, ate with Sean Penn and Madonna, and abandoned his typewriter for an Apple Mac - removed him from the margins and too often blunted his edge.

Still, in his dotage Bukowski produced at least one collection, Last Night of the Earth Poems, that ranks among his finest work. The flow of letters never ceased, and he carried on contributing to small magazines such as Beat Scene. He remained faithful to Black Sparrow, refusing huge advances from one of the larger publishing houses in favour of what he called "uncensored acceptability".

He said in 1974: "It may sound egotistical, but I think I'll be a late discovery. I think people will see the clarity and simplicity in my work, and appreciate it for those qualities."

On 9 March 1994, he died of leukaemia. At Musso & Frank, his favourite Hollywood restaurant, the barman cancelled the order for riesling and Liebfraumilch. There would be no more hangovers, but the Bukowski industry has a few vintage years to come.

`Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life' by Howard Sounes is published tomorrow by Rebel Inc, price pounds 16.99