The poet of pain

The booze, the beatings, the broads, the brawls - it's all there in a new film about Charles Bukowski, says Michael Glover
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The Independent Culture

Charles Bukowski, the West Coast poet, novelist, drunk and general rebel-rouser, sits at the microphone, growling and snarling at his audience, occasionally reading a poem. The audience - perhaps 600 to 700 - is noisy, restive. They heckle him back.

The date is 1973, and he's reading at the Poets Theater in San Francisco, at the invitation of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, poet, impresario and publisher of the Beat generation. Bukowski's looking terrible, as usual - he's been drinking too much (as on every other night of his life). He vomits into a bucket before he comes on stage. And now he says: "This may be a three-bottle occasion." His life was a bit of a three-bottle occasion - as this episode and others show in a new film documentary, Bukowski: Born Into This, by John Dullaghan.

Henry Charles Bukowski was born in a small town in Germany in 1920 to an American soldier of German descent. His childhood was lived in suburban Los Angeles, the city he made his home for most of his life. That childhood was tough - a cruel father who beat him with a leather razor-strop for not mowing the lawn well enough; a mother who used to say when the young Bukowski protested about his treatment: "Your father is always right."

He was a big kid, with an ugliness made much worse by acne, which left his face badly scarred. From his teenage years, Bukowski wanted just one thing; to be a writer. But that was not easy, especially for a West Coast kid when the magazines he wanted to be published in - Harpers and Atlantic Monthly, for example - were dominated by East Coast intellectuals.

After an unremarkable school career, he spent the 1940s drifting - New Orleans, El Paso, wherever - living in the cheapest of rooming houses, drinking, writing, finding out about sex. He'd discovered just one thing that sustained him at school - reading - and it was the company and example of writers such as Hemingway and Upton Sinclair that kept him at the seemingly endless task of writing, being rejected and keeping on writing. What he loved most about Sinclair was an indication of the kind of a writer Bukowski himself would become: simple, angry, brutally direct. He hated books that were milky, obscure, tiresome.

Bukowski picked up and dropped all kinds of menial, blue-collar jobs during those years. The one that he stuck at the longest was with the US Postal Service. He loathed the routine - he loathed any routine - but it paid enough to allow him a few hours of writing and drinking between shifts.

He broke through at last in the late 1960s when a collector of American literary classics, John Martin, sold his book collection to the University of California for $50,000 and set up Black Sparrow Press, which became Bukowski's publisher until the end of his life.

Martin asked Bukowski how much money he needed to live on. Bukowski said $100 a month. Martin, amazed that a man could get by on so little, offered him that for the rest of his life if he agreed to quit his job at the Post Office to become a full-time writer. Bukowski accepted. When success came, that sum increased hugely.

When Martin offered Bukowski the deal that changed his life, he was writing nothing but poems, thousands upon thousands of them. "He was writing more poems than any other man on the planet," Martin once said. They just came spilling out of the typewriter. Some were good, others not so good.

Bukowski's subject was usually his own life: its petty triumphs, its gnawing humiliations, its passionate, frustrating ordinariness, and - last but scarcely least - the glories of the casual lay. These poems are written in a kind of loose free-verse, with a deceptive casualness, speaking with brutal directness. No literary artifice of any kind comes between writer and reader.

Martin liked the poems well enough, but he suggested Bukowski might like to try writing a novel - as would any publisher who had half an eye on the balance sheet. Barely two months later Bukowski presented him with the manuscript of his first novel. Published in 1971, it was called Post Office, and it was a ribald re-working of his own experiences as a clerk and delivery boy. The first sentence is proof that this man is a real writer: "It began as a mistake."

Bukowski went on to write several novels, the best of which is Ham on Rye (1982), a thinly veiled account of his own childhood and acne-scarred adolescence, with the razor-strop much in evidence.

By the time Ferlinghetti invited him to read at the Poets Theater, Bukowski was a hero of the West Coast counterculture, but in the last decade of his life he rose to national fame when Hollywood fictionalised the story of his life in the film Barfly (1987), directed by Barbet Schroeder and starring Faye Dunaway and Mickey Rourke. Bukowski himself was filmed brawling with his wife to give the actors an idea of how the character should be portrayed. He didn't like the finished film. "They got it wrong," he said. "It was too exaggerated, too show-off." But it inspired another novel, Hollywood, which is all about how, in Tinseltown, there are just too many people trying to stuff their greasy, vicious fingers into the pot...

Dullaghan's film comes complete with excerpts from poetry readings (sometimes almost inaudible), interviews with friends, fellow poets and biographers, and unexpected interventions by celebrity admirers such as Bono and Sean Penn. We learn about the white-trash girlfriends, the bar-room brawls, the binges. We also discover one very surprising fact from his widow, Linda Lee Bukowski, the health-food proprietor he married in 1985, who was 25 years his junior. (They lived together for the last nine years of his life.) Bukowski hated Mickey Mouse with a special venom, because Mickey in particular and Disney in general expressed nothing real. That mouse just didn't have a soul.

In the film, we see Bukowski change as he ages and prospers. The face of the younger man looks craggily awful - no wonder he thought of himself as the ugliest man alive. In old age, after a measure of prosperity, Bukowski must have had some surgeon clean up his skin, because his cheeks look delicate and pinkly smooth. An improbable touch of benignity, some feeling that he might at last be at one with the world against which he fought for so long, seems to invest his manner. The boiling champion of the street people, the raging chronicler of the dispossessed, seems to have sailed into a small harbour of inner calm.

And it was Linda Lee Bukowski, a shadowy figure in his writing with the exception of some late poems they wrote together, who nursed him until he died of leukaemia, a 74-year-old man who, by the end, looked about 110. That's the booze for you.

'Bukowski: Born into This', ICA, London SW1 (020-7930 3647; tomorrow to 10 May