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December 19, 2006

DVD Journal: "Bukowski -- Born Into this"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

The biggest surprise of John Dullaghan's excellent documentary "Bukowski -- Born Into This" is that Charles Bukowski appears to have been not-all-that-bad a guy. He was certainly capable of self-centeredness, misbehavior and testiness; he did his share of brawling; and the camera does catch one awful moment when Bukowski works up an abusive head of steam towards his wife. God knows that, for much of his life, Bukowski was one seedy, sad, and lower-depths figure. But most of what we see and hear suggests that Bukowski was a hyper-talented, go-it-his-own-way writer who -- despite the booze -- remained about as true to his muse as a writer can be.

Friends show up from Bukowski's childhood, and from his years at the Post Office -- people who knew him when he was trying to get published and from after he'd become a cult star. They testify that he liked booze, that he was devoted to art, and that he worked on his writing really, really hard. That wife Bukowski mistreated? She tells the filmmakers that she never let her husband get away with crap like that again. Good for her, of course -- but good for Bukowski for taking it and shaping up too.

Given how autobiographical much of Bukowski's fiction is, the film doesn't supply a lot of surprises. The fun and interest is in meeting and seeing the man himself, his haunts, and his people. Bukowski, who died in 1994 at the age of 73, was born in Europe, arrived in America in Baltimore, and grew up in L.A. His parents were strict, working-class Europeans; if Bukowski is to be believed, his father doled out numerous vicious beatings to his son. Young Hank suffered from horrendous adolescent acne, dropped out of college, wrote a bit, then bummed around the country, doing odd jobs and living a rooming-house kind of life. With his scarred face and his lousy education, he didn't exactly have his pick of the dames and the jobs. In the 1950s he returned to L.A. and took a job at the U.S. Post Office.

A near-fatal case of bleeding ulcers seems to have turned him around. After recovering, Bukowski began writing poetry and trying to publish fiction. Still at the Post Office, he became a regional small-press regular. By the late 1960s, his reputation had grown a little. Among the people wowed by Bukowski's writing was John Martin, a businessman in the process of becoming a publisher. Martin felt that Bukowski was the real thing, a writer whose work would last for centuries, and he arranged to give Bukowski $100 a month, enough to enable Bukowski to quit the Post Office and write full-time. Bukowski, already 49 years old, delivered his first novel to Martin in less than a month.

By the mid and late '70s, Bukowski had become near-legendary, especially on the west coast. Poets, actors, filmmakers, and writers revered him. His public readings were mobbed. Sexy chix were suddenly in easy supply, money poured in, and Bukowski was able to move to a nice neighborhood. He continued writing well and drinking heavily almost until the end.

Although Dullaghan's filmmaking is more resourceful than most documentarians' -- he has some especially inventive fun with graphics and typograpy -- the film mostly concentrates on being straightforward and informative, bless it. Bukowski biographer and buddy Neeli Cherkovsky appears to be a major source; he shows up often and fills in a lot of blanks. Book-publishing fans will appreciate the minutes given over to Bukowski's publisher, John Martin. I consider John Martin, the founder of Black Sparrow Press, to be a great publisher and a culture hero in his own right. I wrote a little about Black Sparrow here. Old girlfriends show up too. (It's evidently written in stone somewhere that all bohemian gals, when they get old, must grow extra-fat and go half-crazy.) They aren't bitter; Bukowski never seems to have pretended to be anything he wasn't.

And of course, there's Charles Bukowski. What a talent, and what a phenomenon. Talk about belief in yourself! Bukowski wrote for a long, long time before more than a few hundred people took notice of his work. A small finger-wag at those so high-minded that they disparage journalism and/or self-publishing: Charles Bukowski published his own work for years, and he finally began to make a mark on the larger public only when he wrote a regular column for an alternative-weekly LA newspaper. He's raw and frank, as you'd expect. But he's also surprisingly tender and shy -- half-hateful, half-heartbreaking.

As for his writing ... Well, how juicy -- in a surly-rhapsodic way -- it was. It's gutbucket stuff, perhaps the closest thing that literature has gotten to the Delta blues: pure existential despair, yet full of poetry, music, and exultant life. Much of Bukowski's writing can be said to be the rankest bullshit -- yet even the worst of it is resonant bullshit that can reach the parts of you that drew you into the arts in the first place and make them vibrate like they haven't in years. It's soulful, funny, mournful work, grotty and anti-romantic yet intensely moving, both full of itself and vulnerable as hell.

Perhaps a good way to judge if Bukowski is for you is to look at this short list of some of his titles:

  • "Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions and General Tales of Ordinary Madness"
  • "Mockingbird, Wish Me Luck"
  • "All the Assholes in the World and Mine"
  • "Burning in Water Drowning in Flame"
  • "War All the Time: Poems 1981-1984"
  • "You Get So Alone at Times It Just Makes Sense"

If the combo of mockery, grandiloquence, vulgarity, audacity, and extravagance in those titles makes you gasp a little -- you aren't supposed to even try to get away with that kind of thing! -- laugh, and perhaps breathe a little deeper, then why not give his work a look? If you're like a lot of his fans (me included), you might soon be reading passages out loud to weary friends, indignant that they aren't devouring Bukowski too. That's Bukowski's characteristic tone, in all events: rank, bitter, and high-flying, yet dissolving into melancholy -- Henry Miller meets Hemingway meets Harry Partch, yet more direct than any of them. It's easy to see the influence of D.H. Lawrence, Celine, John Fante, and Knut Hamsun in Bukowski's work as well.

If you'll permit me a paragraph of Rant Mode (tm): Bukowski's a fabulous fiction writer whom the official lit set hasn't seen fit to make time for; academia bothers with him even less. As far as despairing lower-depths fiction goes, these groups are much more comfortable with the work of someone like Raymond Carver. Is it coincidental that Carver's great ambition was to be accepted by the lit set? Yet Bukowski, who went his own way and let the chips fall where they would, has given me more pleasure than all but a few other contemporary authors. I'd happily bet that his writing will outsurvive that of the officially-sanctioned geniuses ... But that's predicting the future, a stupid thing to waste time on. One thing I'm really certain of, though: If Bukowski's short stories were given to English 101 classes to read, many more boys would become interested in literature than generally do.

In any case, let me encourage you to ignore our ludicrous critical elites and give his work a try. My faves include this book of stories, this book of poems, and this novel. Don't be put off by the cult of Bukowski. Many of his fans refer to him as "Buk," and talk as though they know or knew him. Their behavior is understandable and easy to forgive: Bukowski's writing can make you feel that he's connecting with something very deep inside you.

I've liked the feature films based on Bukowski's work too: Barbet Schroeder's "Barfly" (Bukowski found Mickey Rourke's portrayal of him hammy), Dominique Deruddere's "Crazy Love," and especially Marco Ferreri's "Tales of Ordinary Madness," with Ben Gazzara as the Bukowski figure. All three films catch something of Bukowski's sorrow, soul, and repulsive / touching grandeur. "Tales" even gets Bukowski's poetry -- Marco Ferreri was, IMHO, Bukowski's equal as a one-of-a-kind, far-out, mad-poet figure. But that's a subject for another posting.

Here's a Bukowski poem. Here's a good biographical appreciation of him. Here's a website devoted to him.



posted by Michael at December 19, 2006



How do you square Bukowski's success and cult status with your recent book publishing advice?

Posted by: Peter L. Winkler on December 19, 2006 5:43 AM

Two comments about Bukowski: he was never apologetic about his alcoholism, and, in fact, credited booze as the fuel that fired him poetically, I find that refreshing. Although much of his work is first-rate, much of it is in the throwaway category; he badly needed a no nonsense editor, one who never appeared.

Posted by: ricpic on December 19, 2006 8:06 AM

Just like John Fante, who was rediscovered by Bukowksi coincedentally, Bukowski has a huge cult following in countries like Germany, France and the Netherlands.

His success in print even seems to have started in Germany, where his early books were sold as pornography.

Apart from that, one of my favourite TV moments ever was Bukowski's drunk appearance on the highbrow French TV show on literature, Apostrophe.

Posted by: ijsbrand on December 19, 2006 4:50 PM

Bukowski had a tight and long-lasting bond with Native Americans. I think if you explored the work of many NA authors, you'd find the influences pretty easily. They treasured his lack of missionary zeal.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on December 19, 2006 9:22 PM

Bukowski invests his finite life span drinking and writing about life as an alcoholic writer and other people spend fractions--apparently, some of them, large fractions--of what is their finite life span reading what he writes.

What exactly is going on here, in the larger sense?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on December 20, 2006 12:25 PM

"Bukowski had a tight and long-lasting bond with Native Americans."

'Fraid not, Mary. 'Course, I'll eat my hat on this site if you can come up with an example of this bond; but to the best of my recollection Bukowski never even mentioned Native Americans in his poetry (he would have called them Indians if he had) never mind praising them. Wishing it were so doesn't make it so.

Living in LA he did have contact with blacks and Mexicans and his attitude to them could most generously be described as neutral, judging from his poetry. No, Bukowski was blessedly politically incorrect.

Posted by: ricpic on December 20, 2006 4:56 PM

Peter -- Bukowski seems to me to confirm everything I was trying to say in that posting. He'd probably be a Lulu author today! But I feel like I'm missing your point ...

Ricpic -- Good points, tks. I agree with you about how variable his writing is too. A funny thing about him is that I'm often as touched by the "bad" stuff as by the obviously better stuff. Hard to explain why!

Ijsbrand -- I wonder why the Euros were so much quicker to take to Bukowski than many Americans were. Any theories? That's a great vidclip, tks.

P. Mary -- Bukowski liked Indians? Or they liked him? That's a new on one on me, but I haven't read the bio ... Interesting to think about ...

FvB -- Weird, no? Yet there it is.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 20, 2006 7:05 PM

I understand people's initial attraction to Bukowski, particular when they are young. But I don't understand people beyond the age of 30 harboring any feeling other than nostalgia over their own youthful naivety for the man or his writing. The poem you link to, Michael, is a perfect example of why I am non-plussed by the guy. It's not even bad poetry, but merely a faithful rendering of a particularly sad and sordid scene, with no insight offered up. I suppose that's the point, but it doesn't move me at all.

Of course, I loved the movie Barfly, but then, I was 20.

Posted by: the patriarch on December 21, 2006 12:16 PM

The best Bukowski poem >>

The Genius Of The Crowd

there is enough treachery, hatred violence absurdity in the average
human being to supply any given army on any given day

and the best at murder are those who preach against it
and the best at hate are those who preach love
and the best at war finally are those who preach peace

those who preach god, need god
those who preach peace do not have peace
those who preach peace do not have love

beware the preachers
beware the knowers
beware those who are always reading books
beware those who either detest poverty
or are proud of it
beware those quick to praise
for they need praise in return
beware those who are quick to censor
they are afraid of what they do not know
beware those who seek constant crowds for
they are nothing alone
beware the average man the average woman
beware their love, their love is average
seeks average

but there is genius in their hatred
there is enough genius in their hatred to kill you
to kill anybody
not wanting solitude
not understanding solitude
they will attempt to destroy anything
that differs from their own
not being able to create art
they will not understand art
they will consider their failure as creators
only as a failure of the world
not being able to love fully
they will believe your love incomplete
and then they will hate you
and their hatred will be perfect

like a shining diamond
like a knife
like a mountain
like a tiger
like hemlock

their finest art

-- Charles Bukowski

Posted by: Theresa on December 24, 2006 2:05 PM

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