Thursday, 15 August 2013


NOTE: Blake Morrison wrote a piece for the Saturday Guardian a few weeks ago (20/7) about why writers drink. It ran through the usual alcoholic suspects, though it never did get around to answering the question it posed. The piece included a quote from Charles Bukowski, to the effect that booze 'yanks or joggles you out of routine thought and everydayism'. That seemed to suit what Morrison wanted to say, but the more I thought about it, the less convinced I was that, although it fitted the image of Bukowski, it was really what Bukowski's life was about, or what his writing was about. Because although his life wasn't the everyday life of everyday people, it had its roots in the humdrum there, and in his writing was a routine, a different sort of routine, and when you look at it closely enough, you see it bends back, a soaked worm eating its own tail, into the everyday mundane. But that look didn't suit Morrison, nor did it suit Bukowski.

So I went back and found this review of Howard Sounes' biography of Bukowski, which I wrote for Headpress 18, in January of 2002. The issue was subtitled, appropriately enough, 'The Agony And Ecstasy Of Underground Culture'. The review seems also to have been reprinted in the Headpress Guide To Counter Culture, published in 2004.

After the Amber O'Neil book I mention was published John Martin of Black Sparrow Press said he liked it, asked for a number of copies, and then sued because she used some of Bukowski's letters, to which Black Sparrow held the copyright. It has never been released, though copies have drifted out, apparently from boxes in the author's garage.

As 16 August is Bukowski's birthday, I thought I'd post the original review now--giving my take on why he drank, and what he meant to me as a reader. And lift a bottle to Bukowski too.


Although Charles Bukowski achieved a cult status in America, which seems to be growing all the time, for most of his career he was actually more popular in Germany. Perhaps this was because he had been born there, though his American father soon moved him back to the USA. More likely it was because Bukowski’s autobiographical stories, poems, and novels struck a chord with Germans: Bukowski was a man who wrote bildungsromans all his life, and he was a romantic in the great Germanic sense. There is an adolescent quality which his work never loses, and it seems to appeal to the adolescent which lies buried under many adult selves.

Bukowski was ugly. He drank. He sorted letters in a post office. He went to the track and played the horses. He chased easy women. He drank. He got into fights. All that made him different from thousands of other wasted souls in flop houses and skid rows across America was that he wrote about it. Fuelled with a sort of hard-boiled romanticism, he wrote about it in a bare, straightforward style which gave his tales an air of reality, and turned much of their adolescent world-view into self-deprecating humour. It is his way of coming out on top, of maintaining faith in a romantic view of the world, even when seen through a haze of smoke, drink, and rejection. It is not that the life Bukowski presents to us is false, it is that it is presented through eyes that are never as bloodshot as they seem, a sensibility that is never as lost or cynical as it appears on the surface.

Through the unlikely avenue of two small-press publishers, Bukowski became famous, in a fashion, and through his fictional alter-ego of Henry Chinaski his bottled dreams came true. All the booze he could drink, pretty women throwing themselves at him, and his work being taken seriously. In the world of small literary magazines, he was a force of nature, something 'real' in a genre dominated by careerist poetasters, creative writing professors in flannel shirts writing poems about chopping wood.

Writing a biography of someone who has constructed such a vibrant existence through fiction is a challenge which Howard Sounes meets head on, and battles at least to a draw. He is particularly good on the realities of Bukowski’s childhood, and on his progression to loser status. Detailing the nature of his relationships, and seeing in particular the three women who made up the bulk of his life before his writing became successful rounds out and balances somewhat the more romantic picture Bukowski draws in his work. 

Strangely enough, Sounes is less revealing about how it was that Bukowski’s work eventually caught the public’s eye. Although he turned against most of the small press people who aided him in the early days, it is not a common thing for someone to move from the mimeographed magazines where he began his career to financial success. It can be argued that Bukowski made Black Sparrow Press as much or more than they made him, but there isn’t a good sense of just how that came to happen, of whether Bukowski’s ultimate popularity “just happened” or whether John Martin or someone else played the Buk card deftly.

If anything, Bukowski’s biography cries out for more space and more salacious detail. Perhaps not surprisingly, Sounes is one of the many writers to produce books on the West killings. His FRED AND ROSE is one of the most reticent of that genre, unwilling to dwell on prurient gore. This is understandable, perhaps, when dealing with murder. But it's less understandable when you’re relating the life of a man who tossed the intimate details of his own life onto the page with a seemingly casual disregard.

Bukowski was a drunken fuckup, but he used his typewriter while crying in his beer the next day. In classic juicer behaviour, he turned against many of the people who loved him or helped him. As success gave him more opportunity to indulge, and to screw-up more spectacularly, the dichotomy became more and more pronounced. But as the situations got more and more bizarre, you long for more detail. I wish Amber O’Neil’s “Blowing My Hero”, an account of being sickened by having sex with Bukowski, could have been reprinted as an appendix. The recollections of the various women who now found Bukowski the successful writer attractive and romantic stand in sharp contrast to his early life: yet almost all the stories seem cut off before they get to the gut-wrench stage. The tension between Bukowski the romantic and Bukowski the cynical love machine lies underneath almost all of them, and needs to be brought to the surface. Even the potential absurd hilarity of Hollywood tough-guy types like Sean Penn paying hommage to a small-press poet doesn’t get played out for all it's worth. 

In the end, Bukowski got to indulge his adolescent fantasies of priapic power, not just in the pages of little magazines, but in life. Yet he found the character he had constructed became a self-fulfilling prophecy. No matter how bad he got the night before, Bukowski was back at the typewriter the next day. Few of us can literally work and make our dreams come true, but he was able to. In that sense, Bukowski’s life was far less crazy, and less tragic, than people think. Did he start out as a clean-cut loner looking to become a literary light? Was he, in the end, heroic, or were the readers who believed in Henry Chinaski simply taken in by a giant creative con, and wound up buying the drinks for the guy telling funny stories at the bar? That was what the movie Barfly played with, and it's the question Sounes doesn’t ask, and it stops this engrossing biography just short of the final hurdle of greatness.

CHARLES BUKOWSKI: Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life

by Howard Sounes (Rebel Inc 354pp £16.99)

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