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The Low Magic of Charles Bukowski

Still from “You Never Had It: an Evening With Charles Bukowski.”

Among my favorite writers, Harvey Pekar and Charles Bukowski share an uncommon distinction. Despite having lowly jobs as a Cleveland veterans hospital file clerk and sorting mail in the post office, they received the highest accolades for their work. In a 1985 New York Times book review, David Rosenthal wrote that “Mr. Pekar’s work has been compared by literary critics to Chekhov’s and Dostoyevsky’s, and it is easy to see why.” As for Bukowski, Jean-Paul Sartre described him as “America’s greatest living poet today,” although his biographer Howard Sounes discounts that as a tale Bukowski circulated. As for me, I don’t need Sounes’s imprimatur to evaluate Bukowski’s literary merits. I regard him as one of our best writers of the past half-century, and the kind of writer that helped me keep me feeling less isolated in a mammon-worshiping nation. Writers who have held down regular jobs like Herman Melville on a whaling ship or Jack Kerouac as a railway brakeman are closer to our reality than those churned out on the Iowa Writer’s Workshop assembly line.

Charles Bukowski died in 1994, not from cirrhosis of the liver but leukemia. Well-known for his alcoholism, it surprised me that he made it to the age of 73. As was also the case with Pekar, it was like losing a friend. As I read all of Pekar’s comic books, I always made time to read a new Bukowski novel. Since both writers mined their workaday lives, disappointments, and loneliness for deeply affecting literature, you felt as close to them as if they were good friends. Moreover, once they became celebrities, you appreciated how ambivalent they were about such glory. Pekar refused to make any more appearances on the David Letterman show, even if it meant cutting into comic book sales.

By 1981, Charles Bukowski had “made it.” His books were selling in the millions, and young people everywhere went to his standing-room-only poetry readings. That was the year he allowed Italian journalist Silvia Bizio and her film crew into his San Pedro home for an interview that lasted over six hours. By the time it ended, they had downed many bottles of wine. On August 7th, a 52-minute documentary culled from this event will be shown as Virtual Cinema under the auspices of Kino Marquee  and Slamdance. While shorter than most feature films, “You Never Had It: An Evening With Bukowski” is essential viewing for anybody who has read and appreciated the poet laureate of flophouses, racetracks, and dive bars. And even if you haven’t, it is a fascinating discussion of the kind of choices every writer makes.

Like Pekar, Bukowski was uncomfortable being in the limelight. That was just one of the revelations found in this documentary that, despite being little more than a home video, is critically important for understanding the craft of writing fiction. Very few authors are as open about their convictions and doubts as Charles Bukowski. Even fewer are as witty and insightful, especially after the consumption of what looked like gallons of wine.

The interview is an exercise in demythologizing Charles Bukowski as orchestrated by the writer himself. Silvia Bizio, obviously a fan, keeps trying to lionize him while he rebuffs her efforts. She brings up the Sartre quote, and he shrugs his shoulders, saying who knows if he said it or not.

When she raises the question of why sex plays such an essential role in his writing, he downplays it in the most disarming manner. He was in the habit of browsing the newsstands to see what kind of articles the magazines featured. Making ready to quit the post office and devote himself to writing full-time, he noticed that the number one topic was sex. So, if sex sold, he’d have to make sure to have a sex scene in all his novels and short stories. His primary interest, however, was in showing the daily grind of the average working stiff. The sex was just the sugar-coating.

Bizio asked how he felt about his fame. He stated that popularity was not what he sought. Instead, he felt vindicated by hatred. When you are telling unpopular truths, a measure of your success is getting under peoples’ skin. It is best to be a hundred years ahead of your time and shunned by polite society.

Most of all, Bukowski was anxious to dispel the idea that he was a sexual gymnast. Sitting next to his wife Linda, who laughed at many of his outrageous comments, he said that he was only good for ten seconds. She interjected that it was more like three or four. The sex was just something they got out of the way before taking in the Johnny Carson show. By 1981, Bukowski was sixty-one so it was likely that he was only being honest. But you can never tell with him. His main point through this fascinating interview is that the Charles Bukowski of fiction, known as Henry Chinaski, was an exaggeration of the real man.

When the topic of his influences came up, he cited three familiar writers: Celine, Dostoevsky, and D.H. Lawrence. However, soaring above them in importance was John Fante, a writer’s writer. Fante, who lived a down-and-out existence in Los Angeles during the Depression, showed him how to transform a meager life into heroic tales, just as Harvey Pekar described making it through the day as a low-paid flunky in Cleveland.

Fante’s novels were autobiographical with an avatar named Arturo Bandini, Henry Chinaski’s counterpart. For both authors, the author and the anti-hero were identical. Even when there are exaggerations for literary effect like how many bottles of wine they consumed or women they slept with, both men sought to explore their respective souls with brutal honesty.

After decades of working shitty jobs just like Bukowski’s, Fante went blind and lost both legs from diabetes. Bukowski then persuaded Black Sparrow Press to republish all of Fante’s major novels. That’s the Bukowski we pay homage to, not the mean drunk of both fact and fiction.

I learned about Bukowski in the mid-seventies, not long after Black Sparrow published his first novel “Post Office.” My best friend and fellow Trotskyist Nelson Blackstock turned me on to him. Like me, Nelson came to politics after going through a hipster phase in the early 60s. Technically speaking, both of us were not boomers, having been born before WWII ended. Feeling stifled by the 1950s, we were anxious to hook up with anybody marching to the tune of a different drummer.

As a young man, Bukowski was a rebel but not quite a bohemian. Suffering from an extreme case of acne that left a not too pretty face all the more disfigured, he had to put up with taunts in high school. Showing disdain for his classmates, he began making the case for Adolph Hitler just to piss them off. I know this act. Back in 1960, I liked to annoy classmates by saying that I was for Nixon. He wasn’t serious, of course. Things were even worse at home. His father was an authoritarian who used to beat him with a leather strop for the slightest infraction, like missing a few blades of grass when mowing the lawn. All this suffering turned him into a writer since it was the only way to cope with an impossible situation in the same way as a talking cure can help with depression.

If you have Kindle, you can download “Post Office” for free on Amazon. This book had the same impact as “On the Road” had when I was fourteen. Much of it deals with the grind of working for the post office that led some men to “go postal”. For Bukowski, it had the effect of incubating great literature.

The route started at the station. The first of 12 swings. I stepped into a sheet of water and worked my way downhill. It was the poor part of town —small houses and Courts with mailboxes full of spiders, mailboxes hanging by one nail, old women inside rolling cigarettes and chewing tobacco and humming to their canaries and watching you, an idiot lost in the rain.

When your shorts get wet they slip down, down down they slip, down around the cheeks of your ass, a wet rim of a thing held up by the crotch of your pants. The rain ran the ink on some of the letters; a cigarette wouldn’t stay lit. You had to keep reaching into the pouch for magazines. It was the first swing and I was already tired. My shoes were caked with mud and felt like boots. Every now and then I’d hit a slippery spot and almost go down.

“Post Office” contains all the tropes that kept reappearing in all his novels: drinking bouts, weekends at the race track, fights with women, and trying to write despite all the odds against him. In a poem titled “So You Want to Be a Writer”, he lets you know what to expect:

if it doesn’t come bursting out of you
in spite of everything,
don’t do it.
unless it comes unasked out of your
heart and your mind and your mouth
and your gut,
don’t do it.
if you have to sit for hours
staring at your computer screen
or hunched over your
typewriter
searching for words,
don’t do it.
if you’re doing it for money or
fame,
don’t do it.
if you’re doing it because you want
women in your bed,
don’t do it.

Given his misanthropic streak and his high-school stunt of praising Hitler, you might think that Bukowski would be a right-winger like Kerouac. Over the past year or so, I’ve developed an appreciation for his poetry. His poems reveal another side of this complex writer, especially this one:

Having The Flu And With Nothing Else To Do

I read a book about John Dos Passos and according to
the book once radical-communist
John ended up in the Hollywood Hills living off investments
and reading the
Wall Street Journal
this seems to happen all too often.
what hardly ever happens is
a man going from being a young conservative to becoming an
old wild-ass radical
however:
young conservatives always seem to become old
conservatives.
it’s a kind of lifelong mental vapor-lock.
but when a young radical ends up an
old radical
the critics
and the conservatives
treat him as if he escaped from a mental
institution.
such is our politics and you can have it
all.
keep it.
sail it up your
ass.

Louis Proyect blogs at Louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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