Rereading Charles Bukowski
by Eric McMahon, July 6, 2016
There are those who have attained infamy — and flocks of admirers — through their flamboyant self-destructive pursuits, talent or no.
Then there are gifted lunatics, always aflame, iron constitutions allowing them to create masterpieces despite reckless consumption of massive quantities of intoxicants.
You’d have to put Hunter S. Thompson (early on, at least) in the latter category, alongside Thomas, Jack London, William Burroughs, Hemingway, Thomas Paine, Fitzgerald… And you’d have to save a free barstool for Charles Bukowski.
Though consistently drunk or hungover throughout his adult life, the man produced a flabbergasting amount of work: more than 45 published books.
Usually, they were collections of raw, ranting poetry, featuring some of the most outlandish titles in print: Poems Written Before Jumping out of an 8 Story Window; Erections, Ejaculations Exhibitions and General Tales of Ordinary Madness; All the Assholes in the World and Mine.
Before he died in 1994 (amazingly, he made it to 73), Bukowski had attracted a following of hangers-on whom he tolerated, primarily because they were eager to purchase beverages. In the film Barfly, he was shallowly portrayed by Mickey Rourke. (Faye Dunaway did better as the ever-present tolerant, shopworn female companion.)
Generally, you could count on a Bukowski poem to include descriptions of debased behavior, presented with self-excoriation, but seldom self-loathing. From the lowest depths, he sent a message of acceptance, although it was evident he found this planet a wearisome home, and his fellow inhabitants repugnant.
Still, the poet remained more engaged than an alienated, wounded chronicler of desperation and depravity. His rage rang true; at times, screams approximated songs. Tom Waits is closest as a musical kindred spirit. Sam Kinison was a kindred spirit.
Poetry without honesty is a sham. Bukowski was honest to a fault — too much so for some tastes. He also never phoned it in, never parodied himself.
A recent rereading of Post Office, originally released by Black Sparrow Press more than 30 years ago (since reprinted 42 times) confirmed Bukowski’s skills as a novelist and dark humorist.
It recounts many misadventures of a federal servant and postal clerk. There could not exist a more troublesome, hostile, intransigent employee anywhere.
Bukowski’s alter-ego, Henry Chinaski, berates managers, goes AWOL with regularity, shows up in grotesque condition, sets mail afire, and drowns a delivery-truck. Rules mean nothing to him, he receives an unending stream of warnings and write-ups.
Yet they keep him on. Why? Because, notwithstanding his difficulties and disappearances, he’s good at the job. It suits him, actually: a mindless endeavor that paradoxically purges bad thoughts from his throbbing brain.
Chinaski spends years “throwing cases” (sorting mail inside the sorting facility), but real mayhem occurs when he’s walking routes. Residents are all demented, claiming he’s late, that he brings them the wrong correspondence, or delivers it improperly. One man insists letters never be put in the box, wanting them handed over personally.
In off-hours, Chinaski can be found at the racetrack, or drinking and dallying with a series of well-traveled women. Somehow, his aimless, ambition-free existence doesn’t seem sordid.
Bukowski’s characters, whom many would brand low-lifes, may be downtrodden, but aren’t pathetic. How close his output was to memoir — an extended autobiography — isn’t known.
A statement introducing Post Office reveals the author’s position: “This is presented as a work of fiction and dedicated to nobody.”
Sounds hard-boiled, but Bukowski/Chinaski had a tender side, empathizing with bottom-feeders and burnouts. Unashamed, they felt no need to disguise their frowned-upon desires and dissipation. In fact, those were boldly set out on display.
(Post Office, 200pp, paper, Black Sparrow Press, 24 Tenth St Santa Rosa, CA 95401.)