Author and poet Charles Bukowski cultivated a reputation as a vulgar tough guy with whiskey on his breath, hair on his back, and shit stains on his toilet seat. His former girlfriend, Linda King, said “Bukowski worked hard to get his reputation as king of the lowlife writers.”
He wrote about conning women from their cash, raping them if they didn’t put out, and giving them the necessary slaps to keep them in line. His characters, most notably his favorite protagonist, Henry Chinaski, were drunks and gamblers.
Yet, I count myself among the defenders of Bukowski.
I tend to bristle at critics who have described his work as “a detailed depiction of a certain taboo male fantasy: the uninhibited bachelor, sloppy, anti-social, and utterly free.” This isn’t true. Bukowski is more than appears on the surface – much more. But first let’s skim along the surface like a pair of water bugs for a moment.
There’s no doubt that Bukowski – like Edgar Allan Poe – is a maddeningly inconsistent writer. His prose – like Poe’s – can be uneven with passages of utter brilliance sandwiched between drivel. It can be frustrating to read Bukowski and stumble upon passages that make you pause in awe only to be followed by a few pages were you begin to wonder who he bribed to get this crap published.
That’s Bukowski; the patron saint of boozers, brawlers, and two-bit hacks. It’s one of the reasons why he’s so imitated and why everyone with a typewriter and a bottle of gin thinks they can write like him. But, in fact, they can’t.
While there are puzzling moments in Bukowski’s prose, one needs to take the work as a whole – not dissect it by pieces. It’s easy to criticize passages out of context or point out failings in the language on one or two pages. But to fully understand and appreciate Bukowski, you need to view his works as a whole.
Bukowski writes from within better than any writer since Hemingway. It’s not so much what Bukowski says, but what he means. This is an enormous distinction and why his many critics believe Bukowski is sexist and/or racist.
In his novel “Post Office” (1971), this exchange can leave the PC police squirming in their seats:
“And I got myself a nice black gal. And you know what color her hair is.”
“You guys been fucking our women for centuries. We’re trying to catch up. You don’t mind if I stick my big black dick into you white gal?”
“If she wants it she can have it.”
“You stole the land from the Indians.”
“Sure I did.”
“You won’t invite me to your house. If you do, you’ll ask me to come in the back way, so no one will see my skin…”
“But I’ll leave a small light burning.”
It got boring but there was no way out.
The key to understanding this exchange is the last sentence. Bukowski knows that the characters are trapped in their stereotypes. It’s boring and hopeless, but what can they do? It is bigger than them. Better and easier to play the game than to try and buck it. It’s all part of the go along to get along culture that Bukowski rebels against.
In that passage is the entire framework of “Post Office,” a novel about a blue-collar, working man who finally removes the shackles of his petty job and desperate life to become an artist. “Post Office” is about busting free all right – but not from women and marriage. It’s about busting away from convention. It’s about having the courage to live your dreams on your own terms – and society be damned.
Bukowski at his best uses rough language, hard men, and desperate women to explore these truths – these human qualities. He peels away the layers to look at them underneath, but he expects his readers to find the nuance of his language – and follow him there. When he’s on, Bukowski leaves the signposts and when you arrive you are in awe. Bukowski can serve up alienation, desperation and longing like nobody else.
Unfortunately, when he misses, when he fails in his writing, his prose is mistaken for tough guy pulp. And that’s why critics often put him there (there was a reason why his last novel was called “Pulp”).
“Post Office” is the prime example of this duality. The first part of the book flounders and flops like a goldfish that has fallen to the floor among the fragments of sharp glass. There doesn’t seem to be a point to the sordid tales of mail delivery (and drinking and carousing). It’s easy to wonder why he doesn’t deserve the title of King of the Scumbags.
But eventually “Post Office” finds its stride and draws the reader in. It happens so gradually that you might not recognize it. The dry black comedy – the drinking and hard living – open up and reveal the desperation the characters find themselves in and the hope that lies at the edges of the story. The characters aren’t really drunks and losers, but dreamers stuck in the mousetrap of their lives.
And they want out.
That’s why the ending of “Post Office” is so powerful. The main character, Chinaski quits his postal job after more than a decade of harassment and petty tyranny. On the first day of his new life – already in his fifties – Chinaski says:
In the morning it was morning and I was still alive.
Maybe I’ll write a novel, I thought.
And then I did.
Recognize this truth, this desire to be artistically free – and you begin to understand the complicated writings of Charles Bukowski.