This memorial – it’s not quite an obituary – of one of my favourite writers and poets, the rapscallion Charles Bukowski was written very close to the date of his death. I sent it to the Sydney Morning Herald literary pages, then edited by Michael Duffy. He turned it down. I forget the actual reason, but I seem to recall that it was something to do with Bukowski not being sufficiently significant in the literary canon. He was not alone in this estimation.
But as is often the case his star has risen since his departure. And below I publish the piece Duffy knocked back to mark the twentieth anniversary of his death.
CHARLES BUKOWSKI 16.8.20 – 11.3.94
If ever there was a walking advertisement for the politically incorrect and the medically impossible, it was Charles Bukowski. He went to hospital in 1956 at the age of 36 in the terminal stages of alcoholism, got out, went to a bar, and didn’t stop drinking, fornicating, smoking and writing for the next 38 years.
I first found Bukowski in a dedication on the cover of the Tom Waits album “Small Change”. Waits moulded his early persona on the Bukowski character. For years when I read Bukowski, I heard Waits’ gravelly, white Afro-American voice. It was a letdown to hear the high-pitched whine of the real Bukowski on a recording of him reading his own poetry.
He was always a prophet without honour in his own country. When I asked where they kept the Bukowski in the Gotham Bookmart on 47th Street in New York, the clerk peered down his nose, a shudder of distaste ruffled his cashmere cardy and he sneered in his best Harvard drawl “down on the flawer, where he belorngs.” In Europe, on the other hand, he was revered. A Greek novelist I met told me he regarded him as the Diogenes of the modern age. A nice analogy. When quite late in life he went to Germany (he was born in Andernach in Germany, but grew up in Los Angeles from the age of three), he was amazed at the adulation he received, especially from the young. He wrote a book about that trip, illustrated with photographs, called “Shakespeare Never Did This”.
His titles were irreverent and often unprintable in decent family newspapers – surely his intention. He wrote a column for the underground paper “Open City” called “Notes of a Dirty Old Man”, a collection of these columns was published in 1973 with the same title. Among the more acceptable titles from a 1967 short story collection “Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions and Tales of Ordinary Madness” are: “Twelve Flying Monkeys Who Won’t Copulate Properly”; “All The Pussy We Want”; and “Great Poets Die in Steaming Pots of Shit”. The stories are mainly about loneliness, hopelessness, cruelty and the desperate stratagems employed by the down and out not to disappear down the gurgler.
Two movies were made about him, the first, in 1983, “Tales of Ordinary Madness” directed by Marco Ferreri, written by Ferreri, Sergi Amidei and Anthony Foutz and based on a number of the stories in “Erections Etc” starred Ben Gazzara as the Chinaski character (Hank Chinaski was Bukowski’s equivalent of Hemingway’s Nick Adams). It was not a good movie. It reflected a lot of the qualities that Bukowski is admired for – but left out the self deprecating humour, the one ingredient that often saves him from being a sentimental slob.
The other was the 1987 film Barfly, directed by Barbet Schroder, starring Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway and written by Bukowski, his first screenplay, and, to my mind, a fine film that managed to convey the essence of the meaning of his oeuvre.
The novels should be read as a kind of inverted autobiography, with the second last, “Ham on Rye” (his last novel, “Hollywood” dealt with the experience of making “Barfly”), depicting his early life growing up in LA as the son of a violent, drunken father, and suffering through his teenage years from acne of heroic proportions – fistules the size of eggs continually erupted on his face and shoulders – which left his face heavily pocked. This, and being German in America during World War II probably did a lot to push him into the margins of society.
But I like to think his life – and his life’s work – was an attempt to test the inner beauty that he had developed as a defence against the harsh reality of his life. In the film Barfly, he constantly picks fights with the beefcake barman Eddie, who beats him to a pulp (until the end of the film) and, lying in a pool of blood at the back of the bar, you see a close up of Mickey Rourke smiling through bloody lips muttering “thank you, thank you” as once again, inner beauty wins against bullies, back allies and garbage bins.
Was he a male chauvinist? Indisputably. Was he a misogynist? I don’t think so. A feminist friend who read my copy of “Women” said she didn’t mind him because “at least with a man like that you know exactly where you stand.” Or lie.
In his later life he was successful, happy, well-liked and made real money. Every year, the Black Sparrow Press, his publisher, sent a new year’s greeting pamphlet to it’s favoured customers. During the 80s, they mostly contained a Bukowski poem. In 1986, the poem was “Gold in Your Eye” It reads, in part:
on the way, I further decided to write a poem
about the whole thing: the BMW, the bank, the
just to piss-off the
who much preferred the old poems about me
sleeping on park benches while
freezing and dying of cheap wine and
this poem is for those who think that
a man can only be a creative
at the very
even though they never had the
He worked the same territory as Raymond Carver, and although nowhere near the writer Carver was, he was, more than likely, a happier human being. He wrote about other writers, ones he admired, Celine and Hemingway two that spring to mind, but preferred the company of “men with broken teeth” to hanging around with writers, describing writer’s bars as “like flies hanging around the same old turd”. To send him on his way to whatever hangout God or the other bloke prepares for barflies like him, I’ve chosen the last few lines from a poem entitled “the last drink” from the 1990 collection of poems and stories entitled “Septuagenarian Stew”:
what an arrangement! what a
triumph as the walls enfold
and I move towards the bedroom
followed by music and joy
at my heels: the perfect
Here’s looking at you Hank. You told your truth, you hid nothing, and you made good writing look effortless, none of which is easy.
As a bonus, in this digital age, I’m adding a video of his last poetry reading, in 1980, in Redondo Beach California. It’s long – one and a quarter hours – only the true believers will finish it, but it gives you a good look at the man working his way through two bottles of wine, getting drunk, but reading to the end.