Charles Bukowski has been called an alcoholic, a narcissist, and a misogynist; however, he’s probably one of the best American writers I have come across, up there with Raymond Carver and Richard Yates. He is not your stereotypical literary type who enamored with fancy words and high ideals. Instead, he writes about harsh reality. While he uses his words in a very simple manner, they still manage to make a place in the reader’s heart, as they do in one of my favorite quotes of his: “The difference between art and life is that art is more bearable.”
His writing is known to rely on real-life experiences as he wrote about what he felt of the community, his emotions, his sexual experiences with different women and what they did to him, things that happened to him in his childhood, series of rejection and what it means to be a writer. He stayed committed to a particular kind of setting, writing about the poverty-stricken and the forgotten people often demeaned as “lowlifes.” He wrote about his suffering in his childhood, getting beaten up by his parents, his lack of interest in keeping a job, his tales with different prostitutes, alcoholism, and amidst it all, struggled for twenty-five years to get his work published. He was familiar both with the hardscrabble underworld, and the working class as he is able to depict those environments very well in his writing. An example of this is his first novel, “Post Office” where he tells us about his brutal ten-hour-a-day post office job, introducing us to his alter ego, Henry Chinaski and depicting a life that revolves around three things, women, booze and race track betting.
Another reason to read Bukowski is how passionate he was towards writing. It is said that in his early twenties, he used to spend most of his time in the library, reading novels by his favorite writers and wanting to write like them; however, whatever work he wrote got rejected which is why he stopped writing for ten years. He started writing again in the 1950s and continued to get rejected but kept writing anyway. He was insanely passionate about his writing. Despite the rejections and the hard work and the alcoholism and woman-troubles, he still wrote every single day. Ultimately, his dedication paid off and he got his work published. Most people can’t even go through half of the process and give up midway.
“There’s a bluebird in my heart that wants to get out
but I’m too tough for him,
I say, stay in there, I’m not going to let anybody see you”
--From “Bluebird” by Charles Bukowski
His poetry varied more than his novels. Unlike the stereotype that poetry is difficult, Bukowski can write good poetry in a manner which is understandable to everyone else. He writes in a very simple manner, without ornate words. Yet still, his every sentence seems to be too powerful and effective, as in his poem “Alone With Everybody”:
The flesh covers the bone
and they put a mind
in there and
sometimes a soul
and the women break
vases against the walls
and the men drink too
and nobody finds the
crawling in and out of beds.
the bone and the
for more than
There’s no chance
we are all trapped
by a singular
Nobody ever finds
The city dumps fill
the junkyards fill
the madhouses fill
the hospitals fill
the graveyards fill
This one poem, in particular, helps us to understand Bukowski better, and makes sense of all his non-stop alcoholism, and fooling around.
In 1987, the film Barfly, written by Charles Bukowski brought him more widespread recognition. It was basically an autobiographical film in which Bukowski shows what it is like to spend time in his shoes. The movie gives the audience an image of how disorganized a troubled drinkers life really is. The first scene is of Henry Chinaski sitting in the bar, getting drunk, where he meets a woman, named Wanda. She is as lost and as drunk as he is, both of them talk, there’s a connection between them. However, in the later part of the movie we see how drinking is a problem for their relationship and how antagonistic and turbulent their relationship really is. The next day, a well-off woman who works for a literary magazine comes looking for him in the bar and tells him about how she has read some of his work as she invites him home. The next day, waking up from his blackout drunk, he doesn’t seem to remember either of the two women. This is basically what the movie is about, it showcases what a drinkers life is like, how nothing makes sense and how they are trying to figure out the world after a hangover every morning.
Bukowski was brutally honest. In his first four novels, which were autobiographical, he wrote about whatever misery he went through in life. His novel, Pulp, published in 1994, after his death, was dedicated to bad writing. In addition to the usual drinking, madness, and sexual encounters, Bukowski goes into immense detail including about how he suffered from his poor health and frustration. It is a difficult read as a result. This book was completed a few days before Bukowski’s death due to leukemia, so he knew, this was his last book.
Bukowski went on to write thousands of poems and hundreds of short stories. He managed to get over 60 books published. He wrote so prolifically that his books were still being published for years after his death. He’s an inspiration to every new writer who wants to write something different and not be constrained by the rules of the literary world, but to publish their work the way they want to.