Tuesday book: The street smell of success

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The Independent Culture



CHARLES BUKOWSKI was the mesmerisingly ugly poet of downtown Los Angeles with a legendary appetite for drinking and sex with crazy women. He was the apotheosis of the cult writer, the longest-serving American street poet and boozing bum, who died in 1994 aged 73. His work, in poems, stories and novels, is published almost exclusively by the Black Sparrow Press in California, in handsome and expensive volumes.

Bukowski's tone is caught in a poem called "as crazy as I ever was" from his mid-Seventies collection Love Is A Dog From Hell. It's about being unchanged by his cult status: "The feeling is the/ same:/ relentless/ unheroic and/ necessary/ sitting here/ drunk and writing poems/ at 3:24 a.m." In fact, the fame that came in the last 10 years of his life - including the biographical movie Barfly, in which he was played by Mickey Rourke - changed a lot, but he meant that it changed nothing important. Ultimately, Bukowski was a poet of small things, the small necessary things that kept him alive and working.

Biographers of Bukowski face a peculiar problem, because most of their readers will be his readers. They will already know his life story. They will have encountered it in his strange, affecting prose, which is direct and spare as well as romantic and self-mythologising.

In novels such as Post Office and Factotum, he straightforwardly recounts a life of writing in between desperate jobs - sorting mail on night shifts or being a bar-room "gofer" - and the many women with whom he had lusty, violent and loving relationships. His biographer must rework the same material as in those books.

However, Bukowski was primarily a poet. All his writing is versified into very short and unadorned lines or sentences. The titles of his 40- odd books tell much of the story: Tales of Ordinary Madness, The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses over the Hills, You Get So Alone at Times That it Just Makes Sense or Notes of a Dirty Old Man. In a poem called How to Be a Great Writer, he names some of his inspirations (Hemingway, Celine, Dostoevsky and Hamsun) and advises "always be aware of the possibility of total defeat/ whether the reason for that defeat/ seems right or wrong". He described the simple vitality of his work to a biographer like this: "Writing has to be blood on the line."

Howard Sounes set out to write a definitive biography of Bukowski without ever encountering him. He has interviewed widely and had access to previously unseen archives. New facts prick several myths. One important discovery is the truth about his escape from the postal service to write full-time at the age of 50.

He struck a famous deal with John Martin - founder of Black Sparrow Press - who guaranteed to pay his living expenses for life in exchange for the rights to all his work. Sounes reveals that Bukowski knew he was about to be fired and so, ironically, was even more desperate than he ever revealed. However, within a month of "quitting" he had completed a draft of his first novel, Post Office, and the rest is, well, biography.

Sounes writes that, despite the acknowledged influence of John Fante's seminal novel, Ask the Dust, "Bukowski stands alone in modern American literature, unclassifiable and much imitated". He adds that Bukowski wrote about the everyday lives of "less successful Americans living in cheap apartments and working at menial jobs", recognising that "human lives are often wretched" but that "life can also be beautiful, sexy and funny". All of this is true but does not quite get to the heart of it.

The core of Bukowski's writing is its articulation of almost complete disaffection and its dismissal of conventional life: the acceptance of so little by so many. Bukowski doesn't condemn anyone except "phonies", but he refuses to ransom his life to a stifling, homogenous world and so he finds a way to exist among its refuse. It's a place where life has become elemental, where continuing with it is not taken for granted but rebuilt from nothing.

Bukowski's voice is insistent and affirming but it also has the humble durability of someone who won't stay down. Here - at the extremity of things, amid bruising lust and messy human loss - the value of his work lies.

The man who emerges from Sounes's work is one who shamelessly pursued his needs for beer, women and recognition - a man capable of tenderness, who always paid child support for his daughter and who resisted the seductions of belated, relished fame. This biography is an affectionate and thorough introduction that will not be rivalled for quite some time. Its effect is to revitalise rather than reduce Bukowski's work: poems and stories that help keep people alive.