Tuesday book: The street smell of success

CHARLES BUKOWSKI: LOCKED IN

THE ARMS OF A CRAZY LIFE

BY HOWARD SOUNES, REBEL INC, pounds 15.99

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.

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Summer nights: ‘Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp’
TVBut what do we Brits really know about them?
Arts and Entertainment
Dr Michael Mosley is a game presenter

TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

    Orthorexia nervosa

    How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
    Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

    Lady Chatterley’s Lover

    Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

    Set a pest to catch a pest

    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests
    Mexico: A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life

    The dark side of Mexico

    A culture that celebrates darkness as an essential part of life
    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde. Don't tell other victims it was theirs

    Being sexually assaulted was not your fault, Chrissie Hynde

    Please don't tell other victims it was theirs
    A nap a day could save your life - and here's why

    A nap a day could save your life

    A midday nap is 'associated with reduced blood pressure'
    If men are so obsessed by sex, why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?

    If men are so obsessed by sex...

    ...why do they clam up when confronted with the grisly realities?
    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3

    Jon Thoday and Richard Allen-Turner

    The comedy titans of Avalon on their attempt to save BBC3
    The bathing machine is back... but with a difference

    Rolling in the deep

    The bathing machine is back but with a difference
    Part-privatised tests, new age limits, driverless cars: Tories plot motoring revolution

    Conservatives plot a motoring revolution

    Draft report reveals biggest reform to regulations since driving test introduced in 1935
    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

    The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

    Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
    House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

    The honours that shame Britain

    Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
    When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

    'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

    Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
    International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

    International Tap Festival comes to the UK

    Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
    War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

    Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border