Does Charles Bukowski deserve a Reappraisal?

Henry Charles Bukowski is a German-American writer known for his novels, short stories and poems on writing, consumerism, urban debauchery and poverty-afflicted lives of the lower class in the US during the 20th century. His take on the above themes is highly revered and is said to have stemmed from his early experiences of being both physically and mentally abused by his father; his reclusive behaviour, toxic relationships with women, and the unending cycle of being hired and then expeditiously fired from demeaning, dead-end jobs he had to pick up to support his writing career.  

 

Bukowski started as an underground writer and managed to publish his first short story in 1946. He quit writing soon after, because the disappointment of not hitting a stride in the literary world pushed him into binge drinking his way through the decade instead. However, everything changed in the late 1950s. He was diagnosed with a near-fatal bleeding ulcer, and he spent most of his time lamenting over the death of both his ex-wife and girlfriend, but unlike before, the disillusion and grief didn't impel him to knuckle under. Instead, it helped him turn his booze-addled epiphanies into a series of poems and novels that have not only changed the spectrum of clandestine literature but also redefined the genres of transgressive fiction and dirty realism entirely. Needless to say, his ability to keep it authentic; his no-nonsense way of depicting the belly-side of contemporary life, hard-hitting cynicism and unpretentious portrayal of Henry Chinaski, his alter ego in five of his semi-autobiographical novels has made him one of the most quoted and adored contemporary writers of the century, especially on social media and the internet, where his cult primarily thrives. 

 

But just like every bean has its black, Bukowski too has his. 

 

He was a misogynistic alcoholic who spent the better half of his 73 years of existence chain-smoking in shady rooming houses, and like most artists, his personality dominated his work. It is obvious in the way he has wedged disturbingly chauvinistic quotes like, “The male, for all his bravado and exploration, is the loyal one, the one who generally feels love. The female is skilled at betrayal and torture and damnation,” or “Once a woman turns against you, forget it. They can love you, then something turns in them. They can watch you dying in a gutter, run over by a car, and they'll spit on you,” in his work, and how it reinforces a prejudiced representation of the female gender. However, on some occasions he presents readers with contradictory arguments too, which is worse, because in that way he categorizes women into two extremes of ‘everything’ and ‘nothing’ and reels his readers into a situation of false dilemma. His bigoted views fling down the most inherent conclusion on even the greatest of his admirers; he is an unlikable supremacist, and while some admire this unapologetic and self-destructive archetype he represents, many others rebuke him for his overused subject matter and seamy content. A blogger even goes as far as saying that, "At their best, his novels are diminished echoes of stronger works, and at their worst, his stories are puerile, solipsistic, and misogynistic", and it is hard to disagree with his claim. 

 

Factotum (1975) is Bukowski’s second novel and, in my opinion, very bland. It lacks intellectual potency and like many of his novels, depicts women as mere diversions. Ham On Rye (1982), on the other hand, is a very good read. Set in the shady side of Los Angeles during the era of depression; it is the story of Henry Chinaski's advancement from a child who is abused by his militant father, and bullied for his acne-ridden skin and German accent, into an unpleasant, misanthropic man who'd rather drink himself into oblivion than indulge in the daily grind of life. For understandable reasons, his novels don’t always resonate with the reading community, but there is a certain appeal to his poems that can’t be ignored. Take, for instance, a part of the poem called 'Alone with Everybody' picked up from the book Love is a Dog from Hell (1977).

 

flesh cover

the bone and the

flesh searches

for more than 

flesh 

 

there’s no chance

at all:

we are all trapped 

by a singular 

fate. 

 

nobody ever finds 

the one. 

 

the city dumps fill

the junkyards fill 

the madhouses fill 

the hospitals fill 

the graveyards fill 

 

nothing else 

fills. 

 

As the title suggests, this poem is about our deep-seated fear of isolation and how no human interaction will ever blot out that fear, save for the kind we will never find. It emphasizes on the futility of flesh and bone in the absence of an unfulfilled soul and the poet’s cynical conclusion about how everything but our hearts will fill.

 

Another example is 'Roll the Dice' picked up from the book titled, What matters the most is how well you walk through the fire (1999). It starkly contrasts Bukowski's aforementioned poem, because here his tone is positive and reassuring. He eggs you on to transcend your fear of failure and give what you love, your everything. Even if it means losing most of what keeps you sane. 

 

If you’re going to try, go all the way.

Otherwise, don’t even start.

This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives and maybe even your mind.

It could mean not eating for three or four days.

It could mean freezing on a park bench.

It could mean jail.

It could mean derision.

It could mean mockery — isolation.

Isolation is the gift.

All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it.

And, you’ll do it, despite rejection and the worst odds.

And it will be better than anything else you can imagine.

If you’re going to try, go all the way.

There is no other feeling like that.

You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire.

You will ride life straight to perfect laughter.

It’s the only good fight there is.

 

It is almost as confusing to see Bukowski’s gentle and sensitive side as it is fascinating, because no matter how vile the guy was or how much you don’t like him, you simply can not disregard his ability to lay down a truly gripping line. Like the succinct philosophy engraved on his epitaph, reading, ‘Don’t try.’  

He explained the seemingly pessimistic remark in a letter, writing, “Somebody asked me, ‘What do you do? How do you create?’ ‘You don’t,’ I told them. ‘You don’t try. That’s very important, not to try; either for Cadillacs, creation, or immortality. You wait. And if nothing happens, you wait some more. It’s like a bug, high on the wall. When it gets close to you, you reach out, slap out and kill it. Or, if you like its looks, you make a pet out of it.'"

 

In other words, all the effort you put into your work will only give you mediocre results if you’re driven by materialism, and not by an urgent, intrinsic need to create something bigger than yourself. It was his grand philosophy on life, and undoubtedly, one of the best pieces of advice he’s ever given.