Van Gogh’s Ear VII: An American Hangover
By Darran Anderson.
“Some people never go crazy. What truly horrible lives they must lead.”
Any consideration of the life and work of Charles Bukowski inevitably runs up against the rocks of his personality and his misdeeds, the litany of actions that suggest that he could be, and was, a monumental asshole. These are not small incidental factors so much as a great lumbering herd of elephants in the living room. And yet what condemns him is also his chief redeeming quality. Nick Cave was only half right when he sang “Bukowski was a jerk! Berryman was best!” in We Call Upon The Author. For we all are. Jerks that is. Deep down. It’s the common constituent of humanity, uniting countries, races and classes. A United Nations of pricks, jerks and fuck-ups. With Charles Bukowski the closest we’ll get to a patron saint.
In Canongate’s superlative recent reissues the glorious selected poems The Pleasures of the Damned and Howard Sounes’ unflinching biography Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life, the strengths of Bukowki’s writing, the redemptive quality emerges all the brighter not in spite of his character flaws (and they were many) but because of them. In the unsparing candor of his writing and the depths he plumbed lies his gift. He was a poet of recognition in the same way standup comedians are. His poems resonating as touchstones. In Sounes’ preface he defines Bukowski’s greatest characteristic as his honesty, the fact that the poet laid it all down in print for all to see, even the bad stuff, and so you come to trust him. You read Bukowski and you think “I’ve been there.” He’s there with you at your weakest moments, your most shameful, his hand reassuringly on your shoulder when you wake the morning after with a vague but terrible post-drink unease and missing jigsaw pieces of memory or those moments when you’re trekking to work on a pale merciless Monday morning feeling a single breeze away from throwing yourself under the wheels of a passing bus.
Whilst far from revisionist, both books give surprising spins to the barfly cliché. Always contrary in life, Bukowski could confound expectations in print too and it’s admirable The Pleasures of the Damned starts with two examples of this tendency, the mockingbird and his wife, the painter. He was no one-trick pony they attest, leave your preconceptions at the door. Incredibly prolific, the temptation is to regard what Bukowski did as easy which is why he’s inspired thousands of imitators, of varying degrees of success. Most of them believing it was an effortless process to write serenades to hookers and bar brawls and thus any ramblings spouting from a drink-addled mind in free verse form was worth reading. It isn’t. Blaming Buk for his followers though is like blaming Johnny Thunders for whatever bunch of fuckwits in skinny jeans and hairspray are soiling the latest NME with their presence. Both of these books go some way to reveal the breadth and depth of Bukowski’s literary knowledge, schooling himself on the entire history of poetry (you need to know what you’re rejecting before you reject it after all), writing touching tributes to Carson McCullers, Sherwood Anderson (“he never wrote a story that was unreadable / and nobody ever talks about his life or / his death”) and displaying influences beyond the obvious ones of Fante and Hemingway. The surreal lost in San Pedro recalls the lyrical qualities of Lorca whilst the magic-realist nostalgia of for they had things to say evokes the films of Terence Davies. Giving weight to the anyone can do this punk ethic of writing is a fine legacy to have though it’s not strictly a true one which is why despite the multitude of those who came after there hasn’t yet been a writer in underground circles to truly reach his stature or popularity since. He only made it look easy.
So what do these books tell us that we don’t already know? Beyond the well-worn tales of propping up bars or losing a small fortune at the racetrack or the tales of brawling and fucking that he did so well they entered the strange otherworld of cliché. Well in building up a picture of the world he grew up in and the world he departed from, we get a glimpse of a side of Bukowski not often commented upon. That is that he was one of the great poets of aging. Regrets and recriminations, the frailty of the body, the mind still burning, burning all the more because of its mortal bounds, the casual visitation of death (“the clerk stood there / almost surprised… wondering where the old man had gone” – in the lobby ) all of these are explored and poured over by the poet in his later works, “He drank the whiskey, put the glass down and watched himself / in the mirror, very fat, very tired, very old / he had no idea what to do next”. This is mirrored by revelations of how old the poet actually was. There’s a tendency to view Buk as one of our contemporaries especially given that he pre-empted and prophesised the slackerdom of Generation X (“all the poets wanted to get disability insurance / it was better than immortality”). The poems however reveal that he was a man from another age. In The 1930s he reminisces, “I remember when the boxers were all Jewish and Irish… and when the biplanes flew so low you / could see the pilot’s face and goggles”. In the burning of the dream, he talks of remembering the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, Ford Maddox Ford and Dos Passos. In The lady in red he presents a breathless panorama of the Depression-era and you realise how people like Pretty Boy Floyd, Baby Face Nelson, Machine Gun Kelly were as real to him as David Beckham, Katie Price or Robbie Williams are to us, for our sins. This was an old man whose life had spanned the guts of a century and yet he never seems irrelevant or stuck in the past. It’s a testament to his writing and how it dealt with the universals of the human condition that, like all great artists (including his beloved heroes the eternal Li Po and Basho centuries before him), he remains forever contemporary.
In the stairwell of the Scottish Gallery of Modern Art at Dean Village, there’s a large work by Douglas Gordon which lists every single person the Glasgwegian artist could remember meeting in his entire life. It’s an interesting maddening idea, one that can never fully be realised due to the limits of memory and because to complete it Gordon would have to die. Yet it’s a logical outcome of Oscar Wilde’s call for life itself to become art. Bukowski listened to this call. He crafted his work from the scrap of his existence and in the process made his life art, creating a full-blown DVD commentary of his entire life as it happened (thinly-veiled in his fiction as Chinaski). For ten years, he put down his pen so he could gather enough experiences to fuel his writing. When his life did not provide the adequate resources he changed it, an exaggeration here and there, inflations of truth rather than lies. But then that is just as much part of living as anything else. After all, who doesn’t edit their lives? And what is a poet without poetic license? By telling enough stories, Bukowski created Bukowski. He did it because of the necessity of having to, to give voice to who he was and who he should be but also for another purpose; revenge (more of which hereafter).
The Pleasures of the Damned reinforces the image of Buk as a great poetic leveller. To paraphrase Leonard Cohen’s assessment of him, he elevated the bum to sainthood and brought the saints down to earth. In Buk’s hands, the turmoils and endeavours of the deadbeat becomes the stuff of doomed heroism, “and the whiskey and wine entered our veins / when blood was too weak to carry on” goes the incantation of the brilliant it is not much. There are cautionary tales in there too, like when he gets arrested and ends up sleeping on the floor in “the North avenue 21 drunk tank” where “there was always some guy who would step on your face on his / way to the crapper”. Buk was aware of the fallacies of the myth of the starving artist and was savvy to those who would martyr him for their own voyeurism (“this poem is for those who think that / a man can only be a creative / genius / at the very /edge /even though they never had the / guts to / try it” – gold in your eye). But what else could he do? Never one for half-measures, he dived into inevitable ruin with relish, exploring rather than simply wallowing or stagnating in it. In the process, he met, and captured in print, some extraordinary characters, a cast of outcasts and grotesques; a senile former Tarzan, murderous longshoremen, a crippled poet who “carried a wine bottle to piss in” (the angel who pushed his wheelchair). Bukowski was shrewd and unsnobbish enough to see the lineage from the esteemed burnouts of the past to those much less revered of the present, “Harry Crosby and his mistress / in that fancy hotel room, dying together, swallowed by / the Black Sun”… “Tchaikovsky… marrying a / female opera singer and then standing in a freezing / river hoping to catch pneumonia while she went mad”. The tales are related with Bukowski’s remarkable knack for being funny and devastatingly depressing at the same time, a master of the grim comedy and gallows humour of life.
Bukowski has been called many things, a Romantic is not one of them. Yet The Pleasures of the Damned makes a compelling argument for precisely that. The writer was a master of endings; twists, poetic dry gulches and killer payoffs. He understood the importance of flooring the reader, hitting them with a staggering final line to either flip what came before on it’s head or leave them reeling, dwelling on the poem long after closing the book. This was merely his preferred method of expression, his weapon of choice, what defines Bukowski as a Romantic is what he actually wrote. For Bukowski, again and again, life was all about waiting for the mercurial moment, it was about those sudden peaks and troughs that made the vast steepes of boredom just about tolerable. For Buk, there was nothing worse than the grey days; “it’s not the large things that / send a man to the / madhouse…” not “murder, incest, robbery, fire, flood… but a shoelace that snaps… the swarm of trivalities” – the shoelace. Instead, he celebrated and harked after the rare moment of bliss or utter dejection, the extremities that are some kind of transcendence from the humdrum.
Sounes sketches the writer’s environs, where he acted out his failures and triumphs, memorably and without hyperbole, “Triple X cinemas. Cocktail lounges apartment courts with cracked swimming pools. Boulevards lined with diseased palm trees sagging in the smog… the other Hollywood.” Beyond the occasional beligerent drink-fuelled rant and scuffle, Bukowski survived the rough neighbourhoods he inhabited by being unnoticed. It gave him an ideal vantage point as a writer. By appearing like a old drunken bum, he was largely ignored by the street-lunatics, cops and hoods or the helicopter that “circles and circles / smelling for blood” – in a neighbourhood of murder. Bukowski was free to go about his business as he wanted precisely because he was so readily dismissed. It was an ingenious guise were it not for the fact that it wasn’t an act, he really was a drunken old bum.
For all his swagger, there’s a great deal of humility in The Pleasures of the Damned. Bukowski was able to write about writing, that last refuge of the scoundrel, precisely because he freely admitted the absurdity of what he was doing, “to be writing poetry at the age of 50 / like a schoolboy / surely i must be crazy” – one more good one. In terms of writing, it helped that he hated the right things. He had a distinct loathing for hipsters for example, even his own sycophants, “he gabbles about the Arts until / I hate the Arts” – the talkers. Though it provided him with much of his source material, he despised “the guillotine of work” (the screw-game), that sapping parasite that ate his hours, taking defiant pride in idleness, “we stretched in our beds and rose / in the late afternoons / like millionaires.” Continually, he writes of suffering, battling, outwitting (but mostly suffering) the fuckwits sent like the furies to torment him; slave-driving managers, miserly landlords and whinging neighbours. Bukowski’s longest job was as a postman, an inocuous enough occupation you might think until its latter-day reinvention as the job of choice of the spree-killer. Whether it’s the job itself (the hours, pay, working conditions), the people it attracts or wider sociological reasons (the copycat phenomena) that causes postal workers to go murdering their colleagues en masse is debatable but murder they do, at least in the US and the dozen or so cases in recent times. Bukowski, you’ll be unsurprised, never did go postal but it’s clear from his poetry, despite diligently working hard at the job, that the thought no doubt crossed his mind. Writing would be his escape, his salvation and it’s obvious from his writing and Sounes’ accounts of his drive, hammering away at his typewriter tirelessly into the early hours, bottle of Reisling at his side, that he knew only writing had the power to save him. Whether a life of drudgery or a swift massacre in the sorting office beckoned, Bukowski managed somehow against the odds to avoid both, to save himself through literature, like Baron Munchausen of myth lifting himself out of a quagmire by pulling himself up by his own hair. Bukowski literally wrote his way out of the shit.
Before we get all sentimental and go the accursed Diana memorial fountain route of bowing to and flattering corpses, it’s important to take onboard Bukowski’s dark side, the one that no doubt repels many readers and intrigues probably just as many. Countering certain romanticisations, Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life is a history of Bukowski’s literary activities, his relationships and friendships and also his continual efforts to destroy all of these mostly by being a foul-tempered boorish drunk. That was just the beginning.
As the biography notes, Bukowski held a teenage flirtation with Nazism. In hindsight, the whole episode seems born of a misplaced underdog resilience and pride in his German background (he was born in Andernach in the Rhineland but his folks soon moved to the US). Given that he was ruthlessly bullied and ostracised at school for his acne, shyness, his un-American roots and also the fact that the full horrors of the Third Reich were not yet known, it’s more forgivable than initially seems. Sounes puts it down to youthful exuberance and Buk’s interest in “extreme characters.” In actual fact, Bukowski was perhaps the world’s most utterly useless Nazi and even in this short naive delinquent period, he was vastly less right-wing than the average US talk-radio host today. It merely gave him an apparent footing to fight back (“the schoolyard was a horror show” in his words), a false one which he quickly saw through and ditched.
Of all the accusations that were slung at Buk, misogyny is the one that truly sticks as Sounes acknowledges, pulling no punches in his depiction of the writer as a sexist pig with a caustic cynicism towards women. Any man who regularly substituted the word rape for sex in his writing had definite issues. Bukowski could be cruel, viciously so, to his partners, evident again and again in his poetry. “One of the terrible things is… being in bed… with a woman you no longer / want to screw”, he once wrote. “Where’d you get that wart on / your ass?” that thing scares me” he said to a girlfriend in another, charmer that he was. Being simultaneously needy and repulsed by women, he blew pretty much every good relationship he ever had going. Admirably, Sounes shines a light on the women who played such pivotal roles in his life and corrects some of Bukowski’s distortions about them; Barbara Frye, Jane Coney Bonner, Linda King, Linda Lee Beighle, FrancEye are reclaimed (or rather reclaim themselves) from obscurity and Bukoswki’s selective recollections and we hear their voices for a change.
Buk never shook his attraction to machismo; the cheating and whoring, the boxing matches and the alley scraps. He adored Wagner to the end, that master of sublime bombast and wrote of him smitten with this “giant in a world of pygmies,” describing that life-affirming feeling of music when heady with drink it surges through you, “yes, wagner and the storm intermix with the wine as / nights like this run up my wrists and up into my head…” You listen now to the crescendos of Tristan and Isolde’s Liebestod which Nietzsche called “the real opus metaphysicum of all art… insatiable and sweet craving for the secrets of night and death… overpowering in its simple grandeur” and you feel what Bukowski felt when he too listened.
From the sublime heights of music then to the gutter-thoughts of a drunken lech, we have Bukowski with his roving eye, freely admitted the occasional predatory thoughts we all have, gazing Crumblike at a teenage girl blowing bubblegum in one case, thoughts which far from being that of animalistic depravity are as human as contemplating the joy of music is, whether we like to admit it or not. His problem was not that he was at the mercy of his sexual urges (despite Socrate’s assertion that the male libido was akin to “being chained to a lunatic”) or that he chose to admit it when others prefer to hide it but that when any form of commitment arose he would reach for the self-destruct button. Unsurprisingly, given his macho attraction to “men who were not afraid to take what they wanted”, Sounes questions the writer’s possible bisexuality which remains inconclusive aside from a hilariously grim encounter when, in a case of mistaken identity, Buk accidentally had anal sex with a drunken male friend whom he mistook for a girl called Mystery. The case could be made that that he made up for his detachment and malevolence in relationships by the vulnerability he often displayed; in one encounter, a girl leaves him and for all his braggadocio he’s left ravaged, “mercy, i think, doesn’t the human race know anything about mercy?” In the shower, he ponders the doomed nature of love, seeing the inevitable ending before it even happens, “linda you brought it to me / when you take it away / do it slowly and easily / make it as if i were dying in my sleep.” Despite his bravado, Bukowski does have a cutting self-deprecatory instinct that punctures his myths as soon as he inflates them. Often, as Sounes shows, he’s harsher on himself than anyone else and his misanthropy extends not just to women but everyone on the planet. “He was a professional alien,” the poet Leslie Woolf Hedley revealed, “a person who liked to be alienated, and I think he played that to the hilt.” Buk’s misanthropy was so extravagant it became hilarious. Using it to his advantage, he “factored the stupidity of the crowd into a system of laying bets” In individual cases, he was not prepared to suffer perceived fools gladly. Take the following account of his correspondence with an academic, “When they began corresponding, in 1961, Bukowski addressed him with the utmost courtesy as “Mr Corrington”… but the relationship had degenerated to the extent that he had started a recent letter, “fucker”.”
On several occasions, Bukowski went way beyond the pale and the laughter chills. The William Wantling affair is amongst the most truly disgraceful episodes, an event that is a cataclysm to his reputation. Having driven his friend to a premature death, by berating and mocking him in his writing, Bukowski tried to aggressively seduce his grieving widow Ruth. There was no writing his way out of this unforgivable debacle and he knew it, staying relatively and conspicously veiled about it. Ruth, understandably, never forgave him. The “mad, bad and dangerous to know” badge carried on from Byron seems attractive from afar but up close it isn’t pretty. Bukowski was conscious of the outlaw heritage of writers and the currency it gave him, “they pulled Ezra through the streets / in a wooden cage… Villon was a mugger” – junk. Some things can’t be dressed up though and domestic violence is one of them and there were occasions Sousnes relates that Bukowski was guilty as charged of this. An outlaw is one thing, a bullying coward is quite another. He’d crossed some kind of threshold that should not be crossed, reminiscent of when the grizzled old fallen genius Serge Gainsbourg was told by a defiant Catherine Ringer, “Look at you, you’re just a bitter old alcoholic. I used to admire you but these days you’ve become a disgusting old parasite.” You could say it comes down to what you’re prepared to stomach from your idols (if an idol can or should exist at all), a choice between a cast of highly-gifted, terribly-flawed individuals (the Caravaggios, Berninis and Rimbauds) or the nice, diplomatic and cripplingly boring alternatives (the Chris Martins, Anthony Gormleys and Andrew Motions). History will forgive Bukowski for writing well as Auden wrote, his victims need not.
Just as you’re prepared to throw him on the scrapheap, the old bastard will reel you in again. A strange kind of Romantic Buk seems to have been but he was also one with a small “r”. His greatest poems on the subject of lost love outshine virtually anything in those wretched 1001 poems for Vaentine Day anthologies you see clogging up dismally-stocked poetry sections. Particularly strong are his poems dedicated to his first, and life-long love Jane Cooney Baker who tragically drank herself to an early grave. Her demise is related with unbearable poignancy in Sousnes’ book (“Jane died on the evening of 22 January, 1962, while Bukowski was trying to place a telephone call to her son in Texas.”) and also in the small collection within a collection about her in The Pleasures of the Damned. Her life and death haunted and propelled Bukowski’s work through his life. You feel it was his default setting, that drinking and keeping intensely active writing was to avoid settling into melancholic considerations of her and the void. He was drinking and writing it seems to forget her and yet he couldn’t bear to. When he does brace himself to face her memory directly, the effect is incredible, the startlingly poems easily ranking amongst his finest work ranging from the apparently flippant “here’s a drink / to your bones / that / this dog / still / dreams about” to the stricken “jewish gods, Christ-gods / chips of blinking things… they will not / give her back to me,” a man raging at the universe and the unfairness of things, “flog the backs of the saints… piss on the dawn / my love / is dead”. All of them are heartbreaking glimpses of the transitory nature of all human connections, how devastatingly lonely life can be and yet all are tributes that prevent Jane ever truly fading away.
Much has been made of Bukowski’s upbringing and the subsequent effect on the trajectory of his life. Both books sketch an image of suburban hell presided over by a sadist father and a detached mother (the latter one of the intriguing blindspots, undocumented in a life where everything has been self-documented). In A smile to remember Bukowski recalls almost with empathy (he was his father’s son at his worst after all) how his “father continued to beat her and me… raging inside his 6-foot-2 frame because he couldn’t / understand what was attacking him from within”. Sounes backs up Bukowski’s assertions, his father was indeed a lousy bastard. In one telling incident, he relates how the young Charles had poetry published in a journal alongside Sartre and Lorca and his father took the issue into work as a proud father might to show his colleagues but instead fobbed it off as his own and got a promotion from it. It goes almost without saying that Bukowski as a survival mechanism channelled his experiences into his art and it must have been cathartic to some extent, a horrendous scar-inducing assault from his father for example becoming the poem I was born to hustle down the avenues of the dead. Writing then was a form of sectioning off pain, making something good of it and exorcising it but also it would be a form of revenge. After all, who remembers Bukowski senior for anything other than being the thug of his son’s poems. He may have owned his son’s life whilst he lived under his roof but he failed to realise his son would own his afterlife. Dead men, after all, can’t defend themselves. Soon Bukowski would broaden his sights from his father to society as a whole, for the slights he’d continually suffered (the poem now for example). His success would be the greatest revenge of all.
Writing saved Charles Bukowski. “Fear makes me a writer, fear and a lack of confidence” he once admitted. It would allow him to write your way out of disaster, disgrace and eventually a life of work and penury. Also it was a way of detaching himself when emotions ran too close to the bone, just as a photojournalist can be detached from horror by simply placing themselves behind a viewfinder. Art is the armour and the sword. If writing was a liberation and a victory of sorts, Bukowski made clear it was only for the real writers who suffered for it rather than the poseurs and dilettantes, “we knew we had won very little from very little / and that we had fought so hard to be free / just for the simple sweetness of it”.
So, what then of the books? Well in many ways The Pleasures of the Damned is the perfect introduction to the man’s work, the easiest way in to a writer whose sheer quantity of writing can daunt (put together as it is by the man who did more for him than any other – John Martin of Black Sparrow Press). For Buk veterans and completists, there are some genuinely superb previously uncollected gems; thoughts from a stone beach in Venice, i am eaten by butterflies, the girl outside the supermarket, “it’s a lonely world / full of frightened people / just as it has always / been”.
Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life is similarly essential, a sharp, punchy work very much in the succint style of its subject and containing a wealth of previously unpublished anecdotes, photos (rescuing Jane Cooney Baker’s image from obscurity for one), cartoon sketches by Buk himself and revelations. It’s often funniest at it’s wildest or most depressing due to Sousnes’ lightness of touch. He describes Buk being thrown into a prison cell with a conman later on the FBI Ten Most Wanted list, “it seems they were put in the same cell because the authorities wanted to keep the mental cases together”. Or when he gives a memorable account of the occasion when Bukowski and Neal Casady’s paths crossed and Bukowski reputedly shit his pants after being taken on a drunken high-speed joyride. It’s an authoritative, engaging, brutally honest biography unwavering on Bukowski’s faults. But then who could ever hang a poet who had the power to write a line like “he burned away in sleep” or was so open to the world to view a doomed old alco as a “kind of a saint”? Or indeed who could write a masterpiece like the last days of the suicide kid, Blue beads and bones, funhouse or an empire of coins.
On one side then there’s Bukowski’s own voice, on the other the accounts of those who knew him and the truth is somewhere lost in the space between them, undiscoverable in it’s entirety because not even Bukowski knew who he was (no person ever really does). Ultimately, we care about Bukowski, despite all his efforts to the contrary. Dress it up as a guide to human fallibility, excuse his sins by claiming he was out of his mind with drink or his childhood was dysfunctional (does a functional one exist?) but it’s neither our place to damn nor absolve. Maybe we recognise simply the worst aspects of our being in him and somehow in small measures the best, comforting that a man can hit rock bottom and still endure, that we might somehow as he did, against all the odds and all that is holy, make a roaring success from the bare bones of destitution.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Friday, March 5th, 2010.