Book review: Charles Bukowski

DSC07680Over the last several months, I have noticed on my Facebook feed, friends have been posting memes featuring quotes from a writer named Charles Bukowski.  I found myself in alignment some of them, such as:

bukowski charles-bukowski Charles-Bukowski-Quotes-7 Charles-Bukowski-Quotes-8 thats-the-problem-with-drinking

Well, maybe not necessarily the drinking one.  🙂

Still, it intrigued me to look into this writer.  And as fate would have it, my ritual of visiting New Horizons Book Store in Roseville on Thursdays before bowling revealed to me the three novels reissued by HarperCollins imprint, Ecco; Ham on Rye, Post Office, and Women.

According to the books’ About the Author page, Charles Bukowski was born in Andernach, Germany to an American soldier father and German mother in 1920, and brought to the United States at the age of three.  The three novels feature Henry Chinaski, Bukowski’s alter ego, which fictionalizes periods of his life.

I thought I was being clever, reading them in the order that they were published – Post Office (1971), Women (1978), and Ham on Rye (1982).  However, to follow through his life chronologically, the way they are photographed above would be the proper order.

DSC07712

Ham on Rye covers the youth of Henry Chinaski.  It could not be said that Chinaski had the ideal childhood, growing up as the country was moving out of the Depression.  It’s raw, it’s gritty, and it’s real.  Chinaski makes no bones about his condition.

Gathered around me were the weak instead of the strong, the ugly instead of the beautiful, the losers instead of the winners. It looked like it was my destiny to travel in their company through life. That didn’t bother me so much as the fact that I seemed irresistible to these dull idiot fellows. I was like a turd that drew flies instead of like a flower that butterflies and bees desired. (Pg. 155)

Graduating from high school, he found a job working for a department store, which was short-lived, then decided to go to college to get a degree in journalism.  Kicked out of his home by his father, after having read the short stories Henry had written and hidden in his room, he moved on, renting a room in the Bunker Hill section of LA.  The first night there, he pondered his future.

Maybe I could live by my wits.  The eight-hour day was impossible, yet almost everybody submitted to it.  And the war, everybody was talking about the war in Europe.  I wasn’t interested in world history, only my own.  What crap.  Your parents controlled your growing-up period, they pissed all over you.  Then when you got ready to go out on your own, the others wanted to stick you into a uniform so you could get your ass shot off.

The wine tasted great.  I had another.

The war.  Here I was a virgin.  Could you imagine getting your ass blown off for the sake of history before you even knew what a woman was?  Or owned an automobile?  What would I be protecting?  Somebody else.  Somebody else who didn’t give a shit about me.  Dying in a war never stopped wars from happening.  (Pg. 265)

I read this book after the other two, because of its pub date.  I wonder if I had read it first if I would have been interested in continuing with the other two.  Harry Chinaski is not likeable, but sympathetic.  Only glimpses of compassion seep through the anger and resentment that fuels Chinaski’s anti-social behavior.  Still, it was a compelling read.  I purchased all three of these books in early February, and finished them by the end of March.  I tend not to get through 770 pages in that quick a timespan.

DSC07710

Spoiler alert:  This is the conclusion of Post Office.

“In the morning it was morning and I was still alive.  Maybe I’ll write a novel, I thought.  And then I did.”

Post Office is about a period of his (Henry Chinaski/Charles Bukowski) life when he worked for the post office, first as a letter carrier, then as a clerk. It’s about three different relationships as well, the first with a woman he referred to as his shackjob named Betty. He eventually resigns from the post office and Betty gets a job as a typist. She becomes jealous of him being home, with the whores around the neighborhood making themselves known to him. He had become friendly with two of them, and he ended up leaving her, and the other two women, behind. Next, he meets and marries the daughter of a wealthy family, Joyce, who was thirteen years younger than him. To keep up appearances, she made him get a job, so back to the post office it was, and she got a job with the police department as a clerk. She met a nice gentleman, who she fell in love with, and thus ended the marriage. Betty once again enters his life, which becomes the end of hers as she dies. Enter Fay, a war-protester/writer, who wanted to save the world. He gets Fay pregnant. Fay had the baby, then took the child to a hippie commune in New Mexico.

This was Bukowski’s first novel, published in 1971, and the first I read of the three, because it was the first written, and because my father is a retired letter carrier.  Detailing Chinaski’s employment with the post office (“It began as a mistake” – the opening line), we are privy to the thoughts of the man as he toils as a letter carrier, gambles at the race track, and ambles through relationships, all the while consuming alcohol as if it were the air he needed to breathe.  Chinaski wanted freedom, and the post office did not provide that.

After dinner or lunch or whatever it was — with my crazy 12-hour night I was no longer sure what was what — I said, “Look, baby, I’m sorry, but don’t you realize that this job is driving me crazy? Look, let’s give it up. Let’s just lay around and make love and take walks and talk a little. Let’s go to the zoo. Let’s look at animals. Let’s drive down and look at the ocean. It’s only 45 minutes. Let’s play games in the arcades. Let’s go to the races, the Art Museum, the boxing matches. Let’s have friends. Let’s laugh. This kind of life like everybody else’s kind of life: it’s killing us. (Page 74).

His relationship with women is anything but politically correct – this during the period of the early 1950’s to his departure from the post office in 1969.

God or somebody keeps creating women and tossing them out on the streets, and this one’s ass is too big and that one’s tits are too small, and this one is mad and that one is crazy and that one is a religionist and that one reads tea leaves and this one can’t control her farts, and that one has this big nose, and that one has boney legs … But now and then, a woman walks up, full blossom, a woman just bursting out of her dress … a sex creature, a curse, the end of it all. (Page 138)

But there are signs that Chinaski feels and aches, such as when Betty returned to his life after his divorce with Joyce.

It was sad, it was sad, it was sad. When Betty came back we didn’t sing or laugh, or even argue. We sat drinking in the dark, smoking cigarettes, and when we went to sleep, I didn’t put my feet on her body or she on mine like we used to. We slept without touching.

We had both been robbed. (Page 96).

DSC07714

Women, published in 1978, picks up with his relationships with women after achieving writing success. There were several; Lydia who weaved in and out of the story, coming back to him, then leaving him because he shacked up with another; and so many others that it would take some time to go through. The final section occurs when he meets three women at once;

Sara was 32, a classy wench, good style and a heart…Debra was Jewish with large brown eyes and a generous mouth, heavily smeared with blood-red lipstick…I guessed she was somewhere between 30 and 35…Cassie was tall with long blond hair, very young, expensively dressed, modish, hip, “in,” nervous, beautiful. (Page 201).

He starts with Cassie, then days later, Debra, then Sara after that (and had sex with Debra’s assistant, Tessie, in Debra’s apartment in between). Sampling each, if you will. But Cassie ended first because he called her and a man answered the phone. And Sara was committed to Drayer Baba – a spiritual guru – and a healthy living style, which included marriage before sex. So he partnered with Debra until she had enough of his philandering, then continued seeing Sara. There definitely seemed to be something to his attraction to Sara, though he challenged it by having sex with another fan or two. In the end, there is a sense that he is willing to make a commitment to Sara as a nineteen-year-old fan wants to get with him, and he declines.

But it’s not only the relationships that made this novel interesting to me, but also his life as a writer and thoughts about writing.  For example, inspiration:

There was something to be learned about writing from watching boxing matches or going to the racetrack. The message wasn’t clear but it helped me. That was the important part: the message wasn’t clear. It was wordless, like a house burning, or an earthquake or a flood, or a woman getting out of a car, showing her legs. I didn’t know what other writers needed; I didn’t care, I couldn’t read them anyway. (Pg. 101)

And discipline:
I’ve got to get back to the typewriter, I thought. Art takes discipline. Any asshole can chase a skirt. (Pg. 107)
And writers in general:
There is a problem with writers. If what a writer wrote was published and sold many, many copies, the writer thought he was great. If what a writer wrote was published and sold a medium number of copies, the writer thought he was great. If what a writer wrote was published and sold very few copies, the writer thought he was great. If what the writer wrote never was published and he didn’t have the money to publish it himself, then he thought he was truly great. The truth, however, was that there was very little greatness. It was almost nonexistent, invisible. But you could be sure that the worst writers had the most confidence, the least self-doubt. Anyway, writers were to be avoided, and I tried to avoid them, but it was almost impossible. They hope for some sort of brotherhood, some kind of togetherness. None of it had anything to do with writing, none of it helped at the typewriter. (Pg. 140)
And the low self-confidence we writers tend to feel about our work:
“‘Buy me a drink,’ I asked her.
She nodded to the barkeep. He came over.
‘Vodka-7 for the gentleman.’
‘Thanks…’
‘Babette.’
‘Thanks, Babette. My name’s Henry Chinaski, alcoholic writer.’
‘Never heard of you.’
‘Likewise.’
‘I run a shop near the beach. Trinkets and crap, mostly crap.’
‘We’re even. I write a lot of crap.’” (Pg. 181)

There is one statement that touched me.  After reading it, it hit something at my core and the reason I write fiction.  Chinaski was asked “What is fiction?” His response?  “Fiction is an improvement on life.”  (Pg. 197)

A book can be read and enjoyed.  A really good book can make one want to read more books by and about the author.  Maybe because I’m a writer who still feels like he’s finding his voice and honing his craft (which probably 99% of all writers feel), I found these novels to be interesting because of the writing.  The language is coarse, and perhaps even offensive to some.  I almost feel guilty being drawn to it and reading it.  But the narrator feels real because he is being honest about himself with us.  It makes the characters real.  As he states in this interview, reading Ham on Rye, Post Office, and Women his writing is very much bim-bim-bim, bim-bim-bim.
In finding the interview, I also found this video which reads Bukowski’s poem, So You Want To Be a Writer?.
In the Paris Review #212, Hilary Mantel was interviewed and said,
Among writers themselves, the question is not who influences you, but which people give you courage. When I began, the female writer who gave me courage, among our contemporaries, was Beryl Bainbridge.  I don’t write like Beryl, and never have, but when I began to read her, her books were so off the wall, they were so screamingly funny in a black way, and so oblique, that I thought, If she can get away with this, so can I.  (Page 62)

This is why I will be reading more Bukowski. Back in November, while in Traverse City, I found a few of his books at Landmark Books, and decided upon Notes of a Dirty Old Man. It was blurbed to be a collection of his columns from the underground paper, OPEN CITY, and I have a bookmark about sixty pages in.  I recently found Hollywood at Book Beat.

Charles Bukowski died on March 9, 1964.  On his gravestone are the two words he lived by.  Don’t Try.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s