The poet and self-described dirty old man Charles Bukowski died twenty years ago. He passed after a battle with leukaemia in which he finished his novel Pulp (1993). He gave up the ghost with a sigh of relief. He was the American equivalent of Céline. He lived his work. It was the end of the Beatniks and the Hippies when Bukowski burst onto the scene, having been crowned King of the Little Magazines, and churned an incredible bulk of poems and short stories from the 1940s onwards. It was a hard struggle, writing from the gutter, mainly for others who found themselves there too.
Other poets such as WH Auden had seen structure, order and stability (not to mention hard work!) as the vital components to the life of a writer, Charles Bukowski was the manifest opposite and revelled in it. The writing was meant to be as alive as you are, so it was meant to sweat and bleed and reek to high heaven. It’s all on show. As Nietzsche put it “Poets are shameless with their experiences: they exploit them.” He had little time for formal questions, and regarded the matter with scorn, as a retreat for the writer, carving out a minimalist body of work instead. He hated rules and regulations and quickly found enemies and friends. The novels were a fictionalised autobiography centred around Henry Chinaski. It is a portrayal of life in the darkest corners of American society, at times absurdly comic, inexplicable, and it all comes with an authenticity in its gritty texture as each word has to carry its own weight.
A friend of mine told me she feels like having shower after reading Bukowski’s prose. As readers we follow the travails of Chinaski through dirt cheap apartments, menial work, drunken brawls, gambling, sexual escapades, and eventually to Hollywood. He opened Post Office (1971) with a real hook “It began as a mistake.” And with that he reels you in to read a tale of a dozen years as a postie. He had written the book in about a month, after John Martin came to him and made an unconditional pledge. Martin promised to give Bukowski 25% of his earnings for life – it amounted to $100 at the time – every month if he quits and writes full time. Whether or not they succeeded the money would be there. It was this guarantee of a minimal income that gave him the motivation to leave the post office and start work on a novel. It was also what John Martin needed to build up Black Sparrow Books.
It was in the late 60s that Bukowski became a part of the countervailing forces of American culture and society. He had a column in the LA Free Press and Open City – with a column called ‘Notes of a Dirty Old Man’. The Beat Generation was on the wane and Lawrence Ferlinghetti was on the lookout for the next big thing when he came across Bukowski. It should not surprise anyone that he was not too impressed with the Hippies. After all, this is the same poet who loathed Walt Disney for creating Mickey Mouse. He shared this disdain for the Hippie with Jack Kerouac, Much like Kerouac the dirty old man would be hoovered up by the prevailing spirit of Western life. It’s almost as if there was no escaping it. The Hudson driven by Jack Kerouac in On the Road (1957) now sits in a museum with the same dust on it. There is Jack Kerouac Alley, just as there is Bukowski Court.
In Factotum (1975) Bukowski rails further against the Protestant work ethic and instead preached the refusal to work: “How in the hell could a man enjoy being awakened at 6:30 a.m. by an alarm clock, leap out of bed, dress, force-feed, shit, piss, brush teeth and hair, and fight traffic to get to a place where essentially you made lots of money for somebody else and were asked to be grateful for the opportunity to do so?” He was an individualist who hated rules, but he offered a counter-individualism to the pretences of the ‘American dream’ and its false promise of paradise by hard labour. He spat on its sunny optimism and expressed antipathy towards society at large. Solitude was the alternative. It was a conservative solution in that it had no care for the problems of society, or of people more generally. The solitary alternative was a kind of isolationism, an active policy of non-intervention with the world and its social ills.
It wasn’t just a literary trope as we find if we examine his life. In the days when his father called him Heinrich, the young Bukowski studied at LA City College in the late 1930s just on the onset of the War. Once it had started he had moved to New York City and would explore the East Coast. He worked whatever menial jobs he could – even irking a living in a pickle factory – and filled his spare time with typing and drinking. He was first published at the age of 24 and that same year he was arrested by the FBI on suspicion of draft evasion. Bukowski was held for seventeen days in Moyamensing Prison before going on to fail a mandatory psychological exam. He had escaped conscription. Given the militaristic culture of the US there has been some discussion on whether Bukowski harboured pro-Nazi sympathies in those days. It seems more plausible that the young Bukowski simply evaded the draft because he didn’t see any worthwhile effectuality in military service. It doesn’t take a Nazi to believe that.
Besides, the most laden prejudice in Bukowski’s work is not anti-Semitism by any match. It is misogyny, not racism. If Bukowski had been a fascist it would have been obvious. He had a lot to hide, but he chose not to. He was certainly a male chauvinist. In Post Office Bukowski puts it bluntly “Women were meant to suffer; no wonder they asked for constant declarations of love.” Misogyny is certainly a major part of Bukowski’s writing. The same year that the book came out Bukowski wrote in a letter to a friend “Never envy a man his lady. Behind it all lays a living hell.” We got a glimpse into this ‘living hell’ in The Charles Bukowski Tapes (1985) in which we can witness him verbally abusing and kicking his wife Linda off of their sofa.
We shouldn’t turn a blind eye to Bukowski’s misogyny even if we do take pleasure in the unexpected exuberance in his melancholic free-verse. It’s charged with a life-affirming spark. Unlike the domesticated version of individuality Hank Chinaski finds more life in the bars than in the sweat and toil of the factory. This was at a time when the US was a major industrial and manufacturing hub, yet it was on its way to deindustrialisation. It’s not clear where this man would fit in today. It was a different America where Chinaski roamed free. It’s plausible he would have much more company in a post-industrial capitalist society. He writes “The darkness of the room was like sunlight to me.” Elsewhere the dirty realist invites us to “go all the way” even at great cost to ourselves.
Originally written for the twentieth anniversary of Charles Bukowski’s death. This article was posted at Living in Philistia on March 18 2014.