Charles Bukowski: King of the Outsiders (Part Two)
The Post Office years and Black Sparrow Press:
Besides various other menial jobs, Bukowski had worked for three years as a letter carrier for the U.S. Postal Service in the 1950s. He returned to the Los Angeles Post Office in 1960, this time working as a letter filing clerk. He would end up keeping this job for more than ten years. It was a hellish job and Bukowski developed back and shoulder problems from lugging sacks of mail and sorting letters while the supervisors yelled at him to work faster. Most of Bukowski’s letter filing colleagues were black as he had chosen to work the night shift while most other white clerks worked the day shift. Bukowski would often arrive at work drunk or hung-over. While the other clerks talked about sports and women, Bukowski mostly kept to himself. Sometimes he would tell them he was a writer, but they didn’t believe him.
In 1963 Bukowski’s magazine publishing friends Jon and Gypsie Lou Webb, who gave Bukowski the ‘Outsider of the year’ award in their magazine, published a selection of his early poems in a book titled It Catches My Heart In His Hands. The publishing of this book meant a great deal to Bukowski and it was one of the first big breaks he got in his career.
Also in 1963, Bukowski began a relationship with Frances Elizabeth Dean. Frances had changed her name to FrancEyE. She had written to Bukowski because she liked his poetry and Bukowski called her up and asked her to come to visit him. FrancEyE wrote poetry herself and she had some poet friends, who Bukowski viewed as phonies. Bukowski and FrancEyE lived together but the relationship did not go very well. FrancEyE was involved in poetry workshops and Bukowski made fun of her workshops and disliked her friends. Despite the relationship difficulties Bukowski asked FrancEyE to marry him after she became pregnant, thinking it was the right thing to do. FrancEyE declined the proposal but she did decide to have the child and live as a family with Bukowski.
In 1964 Bukowski and FrancEyE’s daughter, Marina Louise Bukowski was born. Bukowski tried to be a devoted father and raised his daughter with much love and affection, but his relationship with FrancEyE did not improve. Bukowski worked at the post office at night, slept until noon when he came back, wrote stories and poems in the afternoon, and spent his weekends drinking in bars. There wasn’t much family time. Marina was to be his only child. After about a year of living together, Bukowski decided it would be better for FrancEyE and Marina to go live on their own. He found a place for them to live in and continued to support them.
Around 1965 a man named John Martin, who worked as an office supply company manager at the time, discovered Bukowski’s writings. He loved Bukowski’s work and decided Bukowski was a genius. Martin wrote Bukowski to tell him how much he admired his poetry and Bukowski responded by inviting Martin to his house. When Martin met Bukowski and found out Bukowski had closets full of unpublished stories and poems, he told Bukowski he wanted to start up his own press and publish Bukowski’s writings. Bukowski agreed so Martin went on and created Black Sparrow Press together with his wife, Barbara. They began publishing Bukowski’s work. Barbara was in charge of the artwork. This was the beginning of a lifelong partnership between John Martin and Bukowski as Black Sparrow Press became Bukowski’s publisher.
In the late 1960s Bukowski started writing a weekly column called Notes of a Dirty Old man for the underground newspaper Open City. He was beginning to make a name for himself. In fact, Bukowski was becoming so well known in Los Angeles that even his employers at the post office found out he was a published writer. When the post office management discovered he was even writing stories in his column about how much he hated his job as a mail filing clerk, they asked him to stop writing about the post office. Of course, Bukowski refused.
In 1969 John Martin's Black Sparrow Press published The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over The Hills, the first big anthology of Bukowski's poetry. It was a retrospective of Bukowski's early poems, many of them dealing with the loss of his first love, Jane Cooney Baker. It showed Bukowski's softer side and remains one of his best books of poetry. Around this time Bukowski gave John Martin a proposition. He basically told Martin that if he could get him out of the post office, Bukowski would write more books than Martin could publish. Martin agreed and promised to pay Bukowski a salary of 100 dollars a month for the rest of his life if Bukowski would quit the post office and started writing full time. And so it finally happened, at the end of 1969, that Bukowski quit his much-hated job at the post office. A couple of weeks later he had already finished writing his very first novel: Post Office.
In Post Office Bukowski introduced Henry Chinaski, the literary alter ego he would go on to use in five of his six novels. Chinaski is the ultimate antihero, obviously very similar to Bukowski himself. Bukowski used his own life experiences from the early fifties down to him quitting the post office in 1969 as the basis for the story. The novel depicts what it's like to have a hellish job like few other novels had done before. Anyone who's ever had a job he or she hated, will feel compassion towards Henry Chinaski when reading this novel. The writing is powerful, straight-forward and at times simply hilarious. Bukowski included lots of dialogue in his writing and there's a very fast flow to it. In my opinion, Post Office is a modern classic and probably Bukowski's best novel.
Women, fame, and Germany:
In 1971 Bukowski fell in love with Linda King, a sculptress and poet twenty years younger than him. This was the beginning of a very passionate relationship which would last on and off for about five years. It was a very tumultuous relationship with a lot of jealousy from both sides. There were many violent fights and they split up and got back together many times. When Bukowski began seeing other women Linda finally left him for good.
Bukowski’s second novel, Factotum, came out in 1975. Bukowski used his experiences of working all those jobs before he joined the post office as the basis for this novel. It tells the story of Henry Chinaski trying to be a writer while working one menial job after another. A classic segment in the book is when one of Chinaski’s bosses fires him for not being very productive. ‘I’ve given you my time. It’s all I’ve got to give – It’s all any man has’, Chinaski replies.
Factotum received mostly positive reviews at the time. ‘Not since Orwell has the condition of being down and out been so well recorded in the first person’, Richard Elman wrote in his New York Times review.
As Bukowski’s writing career began to take off, more women came into his life. Female Bukowski fans began writing him, phoning him up, and even visiting his house. One of those girls was Pamela Miller, also known as Cupcakes. Cupcakes was a young redhead with a voluptuous body and a carefree attitude. She had a way of driving men nuts, and that’s exactly what she did to Bukowski. Bukowski fell madly in love with Cupcakes, despite the fact that she obviously didn’t care for him that much and often made fun of his depressions and writings. Bukowski wrote many poems for Cupcakes, some of them celebrating his love for her, other ones lamenting the fact that she obviously didn’t love him back. These poems appear in Love is a Dog From Hell, Bukowski’s classic book of poetry, which was published in 1977. Bukowski describes his depression and heartbreak in the last stanzas of a poem called Melancholia:
‘the lost redhead was just another
smash in a lifelong
I listen to drums on the radio now
there is something wrong with me
Love is a Dog From Hell remains one of Bukowski’s best collections of poetry. The Crunch, for example, is a poem in which Bukowski brilliantly describes the social isolation which is often a plague in modern society. These lines are taken from The Crunch:
‘there is a loneliness in this world so great
that you can see it in the slow movement of
the hands of a clock
people so tired
either by love or no love.
people just are not good to each other
one on one.
the rich are not good to the rich
the poor are not good to the poor.
we are afraid.
our educational system tells us
that we can all be
it hasn't told us
about the gutters
or the suicides.
or the terror of one person
aching in one place
watering a plant.’
Bukowski met Linda Lee Beighle, the owner of a health food restaurant and a devotee of the Indian guru Meher Baba, when he was giving a poetry reading at the legendary Troubadour nightclub in Los Angeles in 1976. They started dating and she became his second wife in 1985.
Bukowski wrote about his love life in his third novel, Women. In this novel, Henry Chinaski has now become a successful writer and has a tumultuous sex life. Women came out in 1978 and it did not paint a pretty picture of Bukowski's former girlfriends. Although he had changed their names in the novel, the women he wrote about had no trouble recognizing themselves when reading it. Obviously, they were not pleased. Bukowski's readers, however, were very much pleased. Women became Bukowski's best-selling novel at the time. His income from Black Sparrow Press went up to 500 dollars a month.
As good as Bukowski's book sales in the United States had become, they were not even close to his book sales in Europe. Bukowski's books had become immensely popular in Europe, especially in Germany, the country of his birth. In 1978 Bukowski flew over to Germany to visit his relatives and give a poetry reading. Bukowski gave a poetry recital in Hamburg and much to his surprise hundreds of fans from all over Europe had turned up to see him. The European fans treated Bukowski like a hero and after every poem, there was a thunderous applause. Bukowski was very moved by this and he became even more emotional later on when he met his old uncle Heinrich in Andernach. Uncle Heinrich had read some of Bukowski's books and liked them. Bukowski's visit to Germany was very much a success.
In the same year, Bukowski met his lifelong hero, John Fante. It was Fante’s novel, Ask the Dust, which had inspired Bukowski to become a writer all those years ago. Bukowski’s publisher, John Martin, had decided to republish Fante’s books and this is how Bukowski got the chance to meet his hero. Bukowski met John Fante for the first time in a hospital, where Fante was recovering after having had both his legs amputated. Fante had become blind and was dying of diabetes. Fante and Bukowski became friends and when Black Sparrow Press republished Fante’s books there came a resurgence in Fante’s popularity. Fante died in 1983.
Bukowski’s later years and The Red Sparrow:
Mainly because of the book sales in Europe, things were going so well now financially for Bukowski that he was even able to buy a house. He bought a two-story house in San Pedro, Los Angeles, where he lived with Linda Lee. He also bought a new car, a BMW. Bukowski was now a home-owner with a BMW parked on the drive. He had sure come a long way since his post office years. He would often remember how his father used to tell him he would never achieve anything. His father could not have been more wrong.
Even the movie industry now became interested in Bukowski. The film Tales of Ordinary Madness, by Italian film director Marco Ferreri, came out in 1981. It wasn’t very good. At the same time, two other film directors, Barbette Schroeder and Dominique Deruddere, were also working on projects based on Bukowski’s books.
Bukowski found himself reflecting on his childhood and decided it was time to write a coming-of-age novel. This became Ham On Rye. It is the most autobiographical of all Bukowski’s novels. The book follows Henry Chinaski from his earliest memories all the way up to early adulthood. Bukowski writes about the beatings he got from his father, the terrible acne he developed in his early teens, his first experiences with alcohol, and his inability to fit in. Ham On Rye is without a doubt one of Bukowski’s finest novels. ‘In an age of conformity, Bukowski wrote about the people nobody wanted to be: the ugly, the selfish, the lonely, the mad’, a reviewer wrote in The Observer.
Barbette Schroeder’s film based on Bukowski’s life, Barfly, was released in 1987. It starred Mickey Rourke as Henry Chinaski and Faye Dunaway as Wanda, a character based on Bukowski’s first love Jane Cooney Baker. Bukowski himself was closely involved in the production of the movie. Mickey Rourke tried his best to imitate the way Bukowski walked and talked but Linda Lee and Bukowski's daughter Marina were not impressed. In their opinion, Rourke's portrayal did not resemble Bukowski at all. The film got mixed reviews. Around the same time, Belgian filmmaker Dominique Deruddere released his film, Crazy Love. It was very loosely based on some stories by Bukowski and it is a rather strange film. Bukowski, however, loved it and called it the best one.
Bukowski used his experiences with the film industry as the basis for his fifth novel, Hollywood. The novel is quite hilarious as Bukowski makes fun of all the absurdities of the Hollywood film scene.
In 1990, Septuagenarian Stew was published, which is a great collection of short stories and poems. Two years later came the phenomenal poem collection The Last Night of the Earth Poems. It’s one of the highlights of Bukowski’s career and one of my personal favorite books. It features some of his very best poems, including 'dinosauria, we' and 'the bluebird'.
In his epic poem 'dinosauria, we', Bukowski paints an apocalyptic picture where people are 'born into' a society which is destined to fail. A society where 'political landscapes dissolve, as the supermarket bag boy holds a college degree'. Near the end of the poem, humanity gets wiped out by radiation and technology:
'Nuclear power will be taken over by the many
Explosions will continually shake the earth
Radiated robot men will stalk each other
The rich and the chosen will watch from space platforms
Dante’s Inferno will be made to look like a children’s playground
The sun will not be seen and it will always be night
Trees will die
All vegetation will die
Radiated men will eat the flesh of radiated men'
This, however, is not the end. In the last lines of the poem, nature wins and survives after all:
'And there will be the most beautiful silence never heard
Born out of that.
The sun still hidden there
Awaiting the next chapter.'
Bukowski remained a highly productive writer in his old age, writing hundreds of poems, some of which can be considered his very best. He was also thinking about writing another novel. This time he wanted to try something totally different. He wanted to prove he was no one-trick pony. Pulp would be the name of this novel. He started writing it in 1991 and it took him three years to complete it. Pulp is a parody of the pulp fiction genre of writing and Bukowski dedicated it to ‘bad writing’. The main character is Nicky Belane, a private detective who gets hired by a woman called Lady Death to find the legendary French writer Louis Ferdinand Céline. Céline was one of Bukowski’s favorite writers. Pulp is a surreal and hilariously funny novel. Many of the characters and events in the story obviously mirror important events and people from Bukowski’s own life.
While Bukowski was working on Pulp, his health started deteriorating. He was diagnosed with leukemia and he decided to try chemotherapy treatment. While he was undergoing the chemo treatment, Bukowski stopped drinking and smoking. Much to his own surprise, he had no trouble giving up the booze at all. He had often worried that if he stopped drinking, he might not be able to write anymore. He found out this wasn’t the case. Although he had been drinking heavily for almost his whole life, he never considered himself an alcoholic and had never tried to quit. But now the time had come to give up the alcohol and Bukowski found himself drinking only tea and water. He tried living a peaceful, healthy life and even started meditating. Sadly, the chemotherapy was not succesful.
At the end of 1993, Bukowski completed Pulp, which would be his last novel. At the end of the story, Nicky Belane dies and gets swallowed by the Red Sparrow. This obviously alludes to Bukowski’s own impending death and his dedication to writing for Black Sparrow Press.
Bukowski died from leukemia on March 9, 1994, aged 73. The words on his gravestone read: ‘Don’t Try’. It was the only real advice on writing and being creative he ever gave.
He had explained his 'don't try' philosophy in a letter he wrote in 1990 to his friend and fellow poet, William Packard:
‘Too many writers write for the wrong reasons. They want to get famous or they want to get rich or they want to get laid by the girls with bluebells in their hair. (Maybe that last ain't a bad idea).
When everything works best it's not because you chose writing but because writing chose you. It's when you're mad with it, it's when it's stuffed in your ears, your nostrils, under your fingernails. It's when there's no hope but that.
Once in Atlanta, starving in a tar paper shack, freezing. There were only newspapers for a floor. And I found a pencil stub and I wrote on the white margins of the edges of those newspapers with the pencil stub, knowing that nobody would ever see it. It was a cancer madness. And it was never work or planned or part of a school. It was. That's all.
We work too hard. We try too hard.
Don't try. Don't work. It's there. It's been looking right at us, aching to kick out of the closed womb.’
July 21, 2018