Obituary: Charles Bukowski
CHARLES BUKOWSKI lived on the outer edge of that American literary genre, the writer-alcoholic, his personal history written on a face ravaged by immersion in Californian low life. His was an existence predicated on the abuse of drink and incontinent sex, and yet, in between bouts of drunkenness, whoring and sheer laziness, Bukowski produced more than 50 collections of verse, six quintessential novels of the American dystopia, a good clutch of short-story collections and other essays.
It is perhaps remarkable that the man lived as long as he did. A 10- year binge in the Fifties took his liver to the size of a water-melon. A priest was summoned to administer the last rites, only to be told, 'Please go away and let me die . . .' He didn't die and, as if to prove the success of his ambitionless yet resilient approach to life, he went on to achieve cult status in both America and Europe.
Bukowski was an essentially autobiographical writer, whose tumultuous upbringing irrevocably informed his work. Born in Germany in 1920, he emigrated with his family to the United States three years later; he suffered an unpleasant childhood, not only because of an appalling visitation of boils which left his face badly pockmarked, but also because his father was 'a cruel shiny bastard with bad breath' who used to strap him regularly. A tormented adolescence followed - it was difficult to pick up Californian girls with a face like his - and Bukowski drifted into an aimless itinerant life, dedicating himself to becoming a professional drinker and amateur pugilist of the bar. Having been a dishwasher, stock boy, elevator operator and subway poster-hanger, he enjoyed his longest period of employment at the US Post Office, a 14-year stint which provided the material for his first novel, logically entitled Post Office, published in 1971: 'I pretended it was some kind of night- party. I would start writing in the afternoon and come in drunk and those people were so stupid they couldn't even tell.' He wrote out his stories by hand after he had pawned his 'typer' and pursued their publication with a resigned indifference.
Bukowski published his first short story in 1946: the long hiatus between this and his next appearance in print was the result of his 10- year drinking bout. His first substantial offer of publication, after various magazine appearances (including a regular column, 'Notes of a Dirty Old Man' for the Los Angeles Free Press), came later in the 1960s, when John Martin of the Black Sparrow Press offered Bukowski dollars 100 a month for life to leave the Post Office and write full-time.
After Post Office, there followed the novels Factotum (1975), a jobbing journey through his hobo days, and Women (1978), his intimate discovery/exploration of female flesh. Bukowski's simplistic approach to narrative was journalistic, dead-pan: he dealt with a wild animality, expressing an intense existence. This 'eternal search' underlies his poetry particularly, with a heavy dose of irony, as voiced in 'How to Be a Great Writer': 'just drink one more beer / more and more beer / and attend the racetrack at least one a week / and win / if possible'. In 1982, Black Sparrow published his third novel, Ham on Rye, which examined the writer's upbringing to a painful degree: 'the mad one . . . on childhood,' he noted, 'the toughest tree to chop down in the world'.
Latterly Bukowski made his living from poetry readings and his prolific publications; writing every third day, an ever-present bottle of wine on his desk, Mozart on the radio. Two of his works reached the big screen: Tales of Ordinary Madness (1983) starring Ben Gazarra; and Barfly (1987), in which Mickey Rourke played the Bukowski figure, Henry Chinaski, described in his script as 'late twenties to mid-thirties. Already life-worn. More weary than angry. Face formed by the streets, poverty. If he is mad, then it is the madness of the disowned who lack interest in the standard way of life. Rather than enter the treadmill of society he has chosen the bottle and the bars.' Rourke's portrayal of Chinaski was complemented by Faye Dunaway's role as Wanda, a blurred portrait of Bukowski's own wife, Linda.
Critical assessment of Bukowski's work remained patchy, and during his lifetime he was largely seen as too much of an underground figure for more general acceptance by the American literary establishment, loath to regard his drunken outpourings with anything more than mild curiosity. His reputation in Europe was accordingly higher for this heir to Henry Miller: both Genet and Sartre called him 'the best poet in America', and he became a best-seller in Germany and Sweden - countries where, perhaps, his alcohol-fuelled fiction struck a chord. But it was the republication of Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions and General Tales of Ordinary Madness by City Lights in the early 1980s which disseminated his message among a disaffected young audience, ready and willing to take up his hard-edged dirty realism for its own. To them, he was the modern Celine or Saroyan, with a little Hemingway thrown in for good measure.
When I interviewed him by telephone in 1986, I made the mistake of calling California too early. A voice full of gravel answered, and politely dismissed my apologies: he was going to the racetrack that day, anyhow. Then in his 68th year, he professed to find the idea of himself as an 'up and coming author' ironic but pleasing: '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.' And yet he remained keen not to be incorporated into the mainstream, disliking the notion of 'literariness': 'Poetry has always bothered me, right through the ages. I look at it and think, 'This isn't right, it's a fraud. It doesn't express things the way they are.' I want to open it up, make it clear. That doesn't mean it has to be nonsense, or not 'intelligent' - just more readable.'
His cult following certainly amused Bukowski, appeasing the pessimist in him: 'Fame is the last whore,' he wrote in Supposedly Famous, 'all the others have gone.' Now he could make his trips to the racetrack in a black BMW: as the American Book Review commented in 1986, 'Those who despised him as a drunken bum, now despise him as a drunken rich bum.' But a superhuman resistance to decades of bodily abuse had to give way sometime. The work he has left behind - courtesy of John Martin's modest investment - constitutes a lyrical, if dangerous testament to the creative stimulus of sustained inebriation.
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