Besides being a willful drunkard, Charles Bukowski was a survivor of childhood abuse by a father he hated and came to respect for having taught him to write by being such a selfish, mean, sadistic bastard (his words not mine) and a lifelong suicide case who kept trying and failing and finally stopped trying. That book edited by Debritto also includes a piece including a line something like the older you get, there’s less and less to kill. Something like that. Not my words. This is a particularly strange person we’re dealing with here, someone who seemingly willed his way to lasting fame just before he died—love him or hate him—after a life of poverty and menial labor, and not your average literary fabricant. His story’s not exactly that miraculous; Bukowski started submitting to the littles in a regular manner at age 40, though the arrival of a benefactor to publish everything he wrote and give him monthly stipends, whether or not he produced that month, just because he was that good a writer in John Martin’s estimation, does, indeed, smack of the miraculous. Suffice to say he’s no John Updike. His gravestone reads DON’T TRY, which makes his achievements all the more puzzling.
“At first sight, the Outsider is a social problem. . . the hole-in-corner man . . . [he] comes on, with his small room in a modern city. His main concern is still the fact that his surroundings seem incapable of fully satisfying his desires. He is afraid that the world was not created to fulfill the demands of the human spirit . . . the world into which he has been born is always a world without values. Compared to his own appetite for a purpose and a direction, the way most men live is not living at all; it is drifting (Wilson, 11, 49, 143).”
Colin Wilson, still in his twenties when his first book, The Outsider was published in the 1950’s, became quite famous briefly for his youthful erudition in coining a new psychological term. The above quote sums up the attitude and methodology of American writer Henry Charles Bukowski (1920-1994). Bukowski began to gain significant acclaim as a writer in 1967, following a couple of false starts. His deliberately sleazy column in the L.A. weekly Open City launched the groundswell of support which would ultimately make him famous but seems to have poisoned him against serious consideration by academics. Hei produced poems, short stories, novels, even one screenplay in his career, and was often unabashedly autobiographical, but never hesitated to change his facts for the sake of a better fiction. Regardless of the balance between these two ingredients, his voice remains essentially the same throughout his catalog, except it grows up. Storm For the Living and the Dead, compiled and edited by Abel Debritto, includes several notable examples of an older, wiser Bukowski, including these excellent lines from a poem called “a reader writes”:
I must tell you that I am now 70 years old and it’s/ a surprise to me too but if I went on writing about/ women’s asses I wouldn’t have time to/ write about how my cat walks across the floor while/ carrying the secrets of eternity to my brain, I mean,/ look, you can write something to death, most do when/ they find it sells books but I don’t write to sell/ books I write to keep my psyche’s guts from drowning/ in the dung-filled waters of this so-called Existence./ Take Hemingway, he wrote himself into the same tight/ circle which eventually closed and squeezed him to/ death./ Take J.D. Salinger, he wrote lively and compelling/ tales of ethyl youth but when he grew older there/ was no such thing left to write about . . . I’ll be dying soon, that’s nothing extraordinary/ but I won’t be able to write about it/ and I’ll be glad that I didn’t go on writing about/ what you find to be interesting and I do/ not.
Ham on Rye is the story of a boy’s childhood during the depression following him into the first days of WWII. Hank’s father, an unemployed ex-soldier who leaves every morning for an imaginary job, returning at the same time every evening for the sake of appearances, gives him regular beatings with a razor strop for such minor infractions as missing a single blade of grass with the mower. His mother is eerily present-yet-absent in these passages. Though totally dominated by her brutal, insensitive husband, we get the sense she is culpable in Hank’s abuse by her complacence. Here he drops some dry social commentary by way of describing his highschool R.O.T.C. squad:
“The parents of rich kids tended to be more patriotic because they had more to lose if the country went under. The poor parents were far less patriotic, and they often professed their patriotism only because it was expected or because it was the way they had been raised. Subconsciously they knew it wouldn’t be any better or worse for them if the Russians or the Germans or the Chinese or the Japanese ran the country . . . Things might even improve. (Rye, 170).”
Factotum details young Bukowski’s experiences working at a number of jobs in a world ill-suited to his accommodation where, for one reason and another, he never fits in.
‘“Hey, BUDDY!” I stopped and turned. “You want a job?” I walked back to where he stood. Over his shoulder I could see a large dark room. There was a long table with men and women standing on both sides of it. They had hammers with which they pounded objects in front of them. In the gloom the objects appeared to be clams. They smelled like clams. I turned and continued walking down the street (Factotum, 13).’
In Hollywood, the novel Bukowski wrote “about writing the screenplay and making the movie (Hollywood, 239),” as he enters a ghetto in L.A. to rendezvous with his producers, he reiterates his status as outsider stowaway underdog, without affiliation to any but himself, brave, irresponsible outsider in a world full of warring teams:
“Two young blacks about eleven years old stared at us from bicycles. It was pure, perfect hate. I could feel it. Poor blacks hated. Poor whites hated. It was only when blacks got money and whites got money that they mixed. Some whites loved blacks. Very few, if any, blacks loved whites. They were still getting even. Maybe they never would. In a capitalistic society the losers slaved for the winners and you have to have more losers than winners. What did I think? I knew politics would never solve it and there wasn’t enough time left to get lucky (Hollywood, 84).”
Bukowski died in San Pedro, California at the age of seventy-three, after achieving worldwide fame following years of persistence, sticking mail at the post office for decades before John Martin’s promising a monthly stipend for the rest of his life if he’d publish exclusively with Black Sparrow Press. In stark contrast to the lesson he seems to exemplify, the inscription on his tombstone reads: DON’T TRY, perhaps hinting at something. And the posthumous volumes keep coming, including Storm For The Living And The Dead, Uncollected and Unpublished Poems, edited by Abel Debritto
Wilson, Colin. The Outsider. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1956 – Bukowski, Charles. Ham on Rye. Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 1997 – Bukowski, Charles. Factotum. Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 1992 – Bukowski, Charles. Hollywood. Santa Rosa: Black Sparrow Press, 1989 – Bukowski, Charles. Storm for the Living and the Dead: Uncollected and Unpublished Poems. Ecco: An Imprint of HarperCollinsPublishers, 2017