Authors: Howard Sounes
drawings by Charles Bukowski
if you see me grinning from
my blue Volks
running a yellow light
driving straight into the sun
I will be locked in the
arms of a
(‘one for the shoeshine man’)
ecently a journalist emailed me from the
New York Post
to ask what I thought was the essence of Charles Bukowski’s enduring appeal. I decided the answer was in a word: honesty. ‘One thing about Bukowski: extraordinarily honest man,’ Bukowski’s publisher John Martin had once told me, knowing the writer better than anyone perhaps. ‘He hated any kind of dishonesty. He hated deceit.’ Bukowski edited and often exaggerated his life story to make works of fiction. Sometimes he changed his story quite considerably, as I explain in this book. Nevertheless, he faced himself squarely in the mirror each day, writing about himself with extraordinary candour even when the reflection was unflattering. Personal honesty shines through all of the writing, making Bukowski an author one learns to trust and indeed comes to love.
Humour is often the companion of honesty, and Bukowski was the first to laugh at himself, as he laughed at the crazy world around him. A heightened sense of the absurd is in almost everything he published. Reading Bukowski, one can imagine him chuckling as he wrote, the laughter in the stories and poems being one of the happy secrets that we, his admirers, share, while those yet to discover Bukowski’s books regard him only too often as merely a ‘dirty old man’.
He created and played up to that image, of course, writing a newspaper column for years called
Notes of a Dirty Old Man
stories mostly, that were collected in a book of the same name in 1969, a historically important publication in terms of his career and still a popular book with the public, but not, I would suggest, his very best work. Bukowski was always a bawdy writer, but these stories, and others he wrote for porn magazines such as
, were not truly characteristic of his
. Rather it was hack work, done for the money. Relationships between men and women are tackled in a much more engaging and convincing way in poetry books such as
Love is a Dog From Hell
and his superb third novel,
. Here Henry Chinaski (Bukowski’s recurring, autobiographical character) is not just getting laid, though he frequently is, he is a man alternately lifted up and defeated by love, often obsessional love, a subject Bukowski wrote about with tenderness and wit. Chinaski is an endearingly fallible lover: sexually insecure, sometimes impotent and often jealous. Occasionally Chinaski is also violent, as was the case in life. The author broke the nose of one girlfriend, the sculptress Linda King, as I relate in Chapter 8 of this biography, while four chapters later I describe how he kicked another girlfriend during a TV interview. Both times he was under the influence of drink, and it is impossible to write about Bukowski without addressing his alcoholism.
Interestingly, Bukowski didn’t classify himself as an alcoholic, and neither did his widow Linda Lee (she who was kicked, later his second wife). Linda Lee told me that Bukowski was a ‘smart drunk’, making a distinction in her mind between people who are incapacitated by booze and those, like Bukowski, who drink to excess and yet still do their work. ‘Hank remained prolific,’ she argued, calling her husband by his pet name (Hank from Henry, Henry Charles Bukowski Jnr being his full name). ‘I don’t call that alcoholism. I think alcoholism is when you drink and you can’t do anything anymore.’ Despite what Linda Lee says, it may seem as clear to you as it is to me that Bukowski was indeed an alcoholic, literally a roaring drunk for much of his life. This book is filled to the brim with stories of his Bacchanalian misadventures. In a sense, his drinking was his way of putting two fingers up at society. Booze was also the author’s escape from a world he found cruel and hurtful, for along with his other characteristics Bukowski was an exceptionally sensitive man. He writes a great deal about drinking,
of course, and said in interviews that he felt he couldn’t function without alcohol. Yet towards the end of his life, when he was ill with leukaemia, Bukowski was obliged to quit the bottle, and in doing so he found that he could write perfectly well sober. If he had made that discovery earlier he might have avoided a great deal of the ugliness, tedium and humiliation that comes with alcoholism, though he would not have got into the scrapes that provided material for his stories. In any event, it is unfortunate that many people see Bukowski primarily as a drunkard, while it also seems regrettable to me that some impressionable fans make a fetish of his drinking. It was, in many ways, beside the point.
In the books, Bukowski’s tone is often melancholy, sometimes very angry, but as mentioned he is invariably very funny, too, and is quick to recognise beauty and hope in the bleakest situation. Ultimately Bukowski’s work is uplifting to read. Aside from relationships with women, and his own drinking, Bukowski has several major recurring themes. Above all else, he writes about himself, of course, obsessively so about his unhappy childhood in Los Angeles. The author lived virtually his whole life in LA, and the City of Angels is another theme. Importantly, he wrote about life in Los Angeles from a working-class perspective, or perhaps more accurately from the viewpoint of the city’s underclass. Until he was forty-nine, in 1969, when he made a deal with John Martin to write full-time, Bukowski supported himself by working manual jobs. Some of these jobs, such as ‘coconut man’ in a cookie factory, were comical. Others were back-breaking. All were soul-destroying. Most notably, Bukowski worked for the US Postal Service, as a delivery man and then for many years as a sorter of mail in downtown LA. He detested the job, resenting the fact that he had to drag himself away from what he saw as his real life – writing and drinking in the privacy of his apartment in East Hollywood – to put in long hours at the sorting office, simply in order to pay his rent. To Bukowski, who always had a great sense of his own worth, putting a high value on his
, it went against nature to answer to a boss eight hours a day simply to earn a living.
There is a scene in Bukowski’s second novel,
, which illustrates this attitude to work, which itself was a major theme
of his writing as well as being integral to Bukowski’s idiosyncratic way of looking at the world: Henry Chinaski is being berated by a boss at an auto-parts warehouse for not pulling his weight on the job. The boss gave him a break, because he pitied Chinaski, and now he feels let down as he tells Chinaski he is fired for his general laziness. Chinaski is unrepentant, telling his employer: ‘I’ve given you my
. It’s all I’ve got to give – it’s all any man has.’ He finishes this speech by demanding the money he is owed, which he spends at the horse races and on booze, which he drinks with his woman in a cheap room. This is where he is happy, free from his lousy, boring, soul-destroying job, living on his own terms.
This refusal to conform to the capitalist convention of an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, also the refusal to try and ‘get on’ in life, makes Bukowski a radical American writer. In his book
Against the American Dream
, the academic Russell Harrison argues that Bukowski was in effect a political writer, ‘the only major post-war American writer who has denied the efficacy of the American Dream’. He had no interest in party politics or ideology, but Bukowski saw that much was wanting in modern America. Viewed from the perspective of a run-down apartment court in East LA, the American Dream evidently excluded millions of people, those ordinary Americans who struggle by on low pay – cleaning hotel rooms, doing factory jobs and driving trucks – in order to make the country function. The patriotic American would say that any one of these people has the chance of becoming a millionaire, but in truth the vast majority are stuck in their place. Though he was too much of a loner ever to be regarded as a ‘man of the people’, Bukowski gave expression to this underclass. When he made money later in life, Bukowski moved into a better neighbourhood, bought an expensive car and enjoyed living well, but the author remained a critic of his homeland. One of the reasons Bukowski still commands our attention is because of this refreshing take on the USA, which is another of his great themes.
The final reason for Bukowski’s lasting appeal is that he is ‘such an easy writer to read’, to quote his poem ‘I’m Flattered’. Influenced in his youth by reading Ernest Hemingway and John Fante, he developed a distinctively direct style. His language is
basic and unpretentious, the syntax uncomplicated, the lines short, paragraphs and chapters likewise. Whether he wrote poetry or prose, this was Bukowski’s approach, while his poet’s eye for the rhythm and symmetry of language lends elegance to everything he published.
Why did I write this biography? Indeed, is there a need for such a work when Bukowski wrote his own biography in more than fifty books of poetry and prose? This is a fair question.
Bukowski did tell his own story, and did so brilliantly of course, but by manipulating his experiences to create adventures for Henry Chinaski the biographical truth of Bukowski’s life becomes tantalisingly obscure. Many of Bukowski’s readers therefore develop a curiosity to find out the literal truth of the man’s life: when and where the author was born, who his parents were ‘and all that David Copperfield kind of crap’, as Holden Caulfield says so expressively in
The Catcher in the Rye
. Far from being crap, such biographical facts are the skeleton of memory, and history. And because Bukowski made his art from his experiences, and those of his family and friends, there is very good reason to unravel his anecdotes, name the names, fix dates and put the author’s life in correct chronological order.
The first person to write a biography of Bukowski was his friend, the American poet Neeli Cherkovski, whose book
appeared in 1991. Bukowski was in the habit of regaling his buddies and interviewers with stories from his life, in much the same way as he wrote about himself: that is he mixed fact and fiction to spin a good yarn. Cherkovski reported his friend’s well-worn stories in
, without testing their veracity for the most part, or seeking out other perspectives on the man, and where Bukowski himself wasn’t able or willing to answer questions gaps remain in the story. Which is not to say that
isn’t a valuable work; its charm is as a memoir of a literary friendship by which Neeli is able to convey to us what it was like to spend time with Hank.
In contrast to Cherkovski, I did not know Bukowski personally. In fact, I never met the man. Perhaps I should therefore explain how and why I came to write this book. My interest started,
like yours, as a reader. I began reading Bukowski around the time of his death, which came in 1994. I was working as a newspaper reporter then, on the staff of the
in London, travelling frequently on assignments around the United Kingdom and abroad. Invariably I took a book with me, because there was so much time wasted simply hanging around. One day, sitting in my parked car, I opened a book I had bought on impulse. It was Bukowski’s first novel,
, his fictionalised account of working for the US Postal Service. I had never read anything by Bukowski before and was delighted by his terse, witty style. I also empathised with the hero. Like Henry Chinaski, I disliked my day job, thinking it trivial and tiresome. Like Chinaski/ Bukowski, I had come to resent being told what to do by bosses (editors in my case), placing a premium on my time. It is all we have, as Chinaski says. However, employers – or rather middle managers – seem to think our time is
. And here is the rub. In order to break free from the slavery of an unfulfilling job one needs other income. Luckily, I had prospects. It so happened that I was writing my first book, a non-fiction account of the Fred and Rosemary West murder case, which I covered extensively as a reporter. Like Chinaski, I now wanted to give up the day job to write books full-time, rather than kowtow to bosses who had come to seem as irksome and ridiculous to me as they were to Chinaski.
When my book
Fred & Rose
was published in 1995 it was sufficiently successful to encourage me to tackle another, more ambitious, literary project. I had it in mind to write a full-length biography of a cultural figure I admired. As I devoured Bukowski’s books, it became clear that my new subject was under my nose: evidently Bukowski was writing about his own adventures in poetry and prose, but in doing so he had made so many little alterations and mixed up the order of events to such an extent that his life had become hopelessly entangled with the legend of Henry Chinaski. Reading between the lines, as a reporter, I saw that I could probably find the people he based his characters on, together with the documentary evidence that would allow me to pin down the facts of the author’s life, and that by this method I could compare the life of Bukowski with that of Chinaski, reveal the discrepancies between the two, and tell the resulting story as
biography. This would be a valuable companion book for anyone interested in his writing, or indeed Bukowski as a personality.
I began work on this project in 1996 and within a short time it had taken over my life. Ten years on, having written several more books, I see that it is entirely natural for an author to become obsessional about his subject. In a sense, one has to be in the grip of an obsession to write well. Even so, Charles Bukowski got a hold on me that was exceptional, and this book became nothing less than a life-changing experience. As I got deeper into my research, I was increasingly reluctant to drag myself from the book to do my day job, which was now with the
. A national newspaper journalist is on call all the time, linked to the news desk by mobile phone and pager (as was then the system), liable to be dispatched almost anywhere at a moment’s notice. This is part of the excitement of the work. That excitement can wear thin, however, and in my case it was replaced by wanting to do something else with my time, on my own terms, the ‘urgent’ calls from the office merely irritating distractions from my work as a writer. Without doubt, I was under the influence of Bukowski’s personal philosophy here. In any event, I continued the unsatisfactory business of fitting my research around my day job, using my vacation time to travel to the USA to interview Bukowski’s friends and family. During one of these trips I experienced what Americans like to call an epiphany.