Books: Soft on himself, tough on everyone else

Charles Bukowski: Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life by Howard Sounes, Rebel Inc pounds 16.99
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The Independent Culture
In the early 1960s, when the disreputable poet and novelist Charles Bukowski was practically anonymous, he was introduced to Sam Cherry, a photographer. Attempting to impress upon Cherry the authenticity of his picaresque life, he bragged that he had killed five men. Cherry immediately questioned the validity of this, and Bukowski reduced the number to four. After 30 minutes of cross-examination, Bukowski reluctantly conceded that he had not murdered anyone. In this biography, Cherry understandably announces to Howard Sounes that Charles Bukowski was "full of bullshit".

In both his poetry and prose, Bukowski ostensibly dissected his life relentlessly and critically, creating a plaintive, but frequently humorous, portrait of an alcoholic social outcast. The comparative failure of Pulp, his only unautobiographical novel, suggests that he could not write beyond his own experiences. In an interview from 1976, he stated that 93 per cent of his work was factual and the other 7 per cent "improved upon". Yet despite Cherry's denunciation, Bukowski undoubtedly wrote faithfully about a large portion of his life and, consequently, a biography about him could be considered superfluous.

But what tempted Howard Sounes into writing one was a desire to separate the facts from the myths that the subject readily promoted. "I thought it would be fun to find all these people and find out whether they said it was all rubbish and he embellished it all, or whether it was funnier, wilder than he wrote."

Sounes, who consulted private letters to and by Bukowski, assembled a formidable range of interviewees, including Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsberg, Bukowski's widow, his publisher, his girlfriends, a barman and many poets from Los Angeles with whom he drank, to construct an intriguing biography of a complex man. Bukowski's life is described by many voices and not just one, and Sounes astutely avoids simply regurgitating infamous anecdotes that are commonplace to anyone who knows the work.

The biography discloses that, like many artists, Bukowski was tender to his own disposition but could be brutally callous with others, as one interviewee, Linda King, remembers: "He could be quite cruel and spare himself beautifully." Henry Chinaski, the barely disguised self-portrait in the novels, did not hit women but, as Sounes observes: "In real life, Bukowski was knocking his wives and girlfriends around like Muhammad Ali and that's not in the books." He also ruthlessly exploited his friendships for material to write about. In his novel Women he did not ask any of his former girlfriends if he could divulge intimate sexual information or create grotesque, but recognisable, exaggerations of their characters. Yet one such girlfriend, Joanna Bull, admits: "What was he going to say, that we had a sane relationship, that we sat like two civilised people having refined conversation?"

Importantly, the biography provides a correct chronology of Bukowski's life, difficult to grasp from simply reading the novels. Sounes also succeeds in deflating some myths about Bukowski and highlighting the more vicious elements of his character, but the writer is hardly exposed as a fraud and remains a fascinating, colourful character. Sounes admits: "If someone was going to pick up a Bukowski book tomorrow and there was my book or a novel I would say, 'Pick up the novel,' but once you've read the novels you might find it interesting to read about the man."