Charles Bukowski: King of the Outsiders (Part One)

  (drawing by Jana Michel)

(drawing by Jana Michel)

  The first great outsider to be featured on this blog is none other than Charles Bukowski, a man who's books absolutely took me by the throat when I first discovered them in my late teens and early twenties. I’ve got so many things to say about this man I decided to divide it all up in two parts, this being part one.

When I first started reading Bukowski I was working one shitty job after another and it was slowly killing me, but Bukowski's books gave me the strength to carry on. I discovered his books in my local library and it was a life changing experience.  Finally there was a writer who wrote about the tragedy of ordinary people wasting their lives as if it meant nothing at all. This was what I was looking for all that time. It wasn't just what he wrote about, it was the style of his writing as well. So fluent, so real, so pure, so dark and yet hilarious... There was nothing pretentious about it. He was not trying to be clever, he was writing straight from the gut.
 

Bukowski wrote about the underbelly of society but never in a political way. Although he was very much anti-establishment, he was not a political writer at all. Bukowski hated politics just like I did and still do. He was just a man who had a way to see through all the bullshit and was able to write it all down in an entertaining and gripping way. He wrote about life, love and the impossibility of being a sensitive person in a cold, soul-killing world. You could tell he had lived the life. He had walked the walk. You could not write like that without having had a tough life. Sure, you could tell he was spicing things up a bit by adding some made up sex stories here and there, but most of what he wrote about seemed very real and autobiographical.
 

I will never forget discovering Bukowski’s novels and especially his poems and short stories for the first time. It was glorious. Years later, I found out Bukowski had experienced something very similar himself as a young man, when he discovered the novels of the great John Fante in the Los Angeles public library.

Biography:

Poet, novelist, alcoholic, laureate of American lowlife and now legendary cult icon, Charles 'Hank' Bukowski probably needs no introduction, but I’ll do it anyway. The last line in one of his poems goes: ‘If you read this after I am dead, it means I made it’. Well, guess what, he made it. Almost every book shop and library these days has a good amount of Bukowski’s books on the shelves and, although the academic critics still give his work little attention, his novels and books of poetry and short stories continue to sell more than twenty years after his death. Bukowski, who only found some success and credibility as a writer when he was in his fifties, is now a cultural icon. His work has been translated in many different languages, there have been Hollywood films made starring the likes of Mickey Rourke and Matt Dillon based on his writings (Barfly and Factotum) and bands like The Red Hot Chili Peppers and U2 praise him in their lyrics. Bukowski made it all right, it just took him some time.

Early years:

Heinrich Karl Bukowski, or Hank as he liked to be called, was born in Andernach, Germany in 1920. His father, Henry Charles Bukowski, was an American Army sergeant whose parents had emigrated to the US from Germany and he met his German wife while being stationed in Germany. When the German economy crashed in 1923 Bukowski’s father decided to return to the United States with his wife and son. After spending some time in Baltimore the family moved to Los Angeles in 1924. Bukowski would end up living almost his whole life in Los Angeles and the city became a big theme in his writing.
 

By his own account, Bukowski had a terrible childhood. He never had many friends as the local children made fun of him for having a German mother and to make things worse his father was abusive towards him and his mother. Bukowski’s father beat him almost on a daily basis. His mother never tried to stop the brutal beatings and did not even show any compassion towards him after the beatings, which made him lose all respect for his mother as well. When Bukowski grew a little older he decided to no longer give his father the satisfaction of screaming while being beaten. After Bukowski stopped screaming during the beatings, the abuse stopped. The tables finally turned one day when Bukowski fought back and punched his father.
 

Another thing that made the young Bukowski become a tormented loner, besides having a cruel father, was the fact that he developed terrible acne in his early teens. Bukowski developed huge boils all over his face and body. The doctors at Los Angeles County Hospital called it acne vulgaris. This terrible case of acne made him look like a freak and turned him into a loner during his high school years. Bukowski later wrote about this time in his life in his great coming-of-age novel Ham On Rye.
 

It was during his high school years when Bukowski discovered the public library. He became an avid reader and visited the library as often as he could. He loved Hemingway’s early stories and the Russian writers, particularly Turgenev, but he disliked a lot of writers as well. Many writers were boring to him and he could not relate to what they wrote about at all. Then one day came one of the most important moments in his life, the time he discovered John Fante’s novel Ask The Dust. Bukowski later described this moment as ‘finding gold in the city dump’. Fante wrote about Arturo Bandini, a young man in Los Angeles trying to be a writer. There was a flow in Fante’s writing, the lines had energy and passion, something Bukowski was missing when reading other writers. Fante became Bukowski’s god and his writing inspired Bukowski to become a writer himself. Many years later, in 1979, Bukowski met his lifelong hero and became friends with him. When Bukowski and Fante became friends Fante was dying of diabetes but Bukowski inspired him to write again. Another thing Bukowski discovered in his high school years, besides literature, was alcohol. Bukowski became a heavy drinker from a very early age and stayed one for the biggest part of his life.
 

When Bukowski finished high school he enrolled at Los Angeles City college in 1939 to study Journalism, thinking he could become a journalist, but he soon dropped out after getting poor grades. After dropping out of college he moved out of his parents’ house and started travelling the country, renting cheap rooms and working in factories and warehouses. This was of course the time of World War II but Bukowski did not have to go to war because he failed the psychiatric test. The army psychiatrist found him ‘too sensitive’ to go to war so Bukowski was one of the few young men who did not go to fight in Europe and stayed home in the United States.  When he wasn’t out working in the factories or warehouses he was at home writing stories on his typewriter while drinking heavily and listening to symphonies by Beethoven, Brahms and Sibelius. ‘I used to write eight or ten stories a week. All I did was write these stories and drink as much as possible’, Bukowski later said about these years. He mailed his stories to various magazines hoping to get published but more often than not the stories got rejected. He none the less continued to write stories for many years, sometimes getting published in magazines but most of the time getting rejected, and he continued drinking in bars and working dead-end jobs as well.
 

As time went on Bukowski also started writing poetry, inspired by the poems of Robinson Jeffers and E. E. Cummings. Now and then a magazine would publish some of his poems or short stories but he didn’t have a lot of success. He was back living in Los Angeles when he met the first love of his life, Jane Cooney Baker. She was his first girlfriend, despite Bukowski already being 27 at the time. He wrote many poems about her and she appears in his novels. Bukowski and Jane lived together in different places for some years but the relationship had many lows. They were both heavy drinkers and there were many fights and arguments. Bukowski worked as a shipping clerk most of the time he was with Jane and when he was out working she was out drinking in bars and flirting with other men. When Bukowski lost his job he started gambling at the race track and losing a lot of money. Jane suspected he was seeing other women so she left him.
 

Bukowski still kept on writing and sending his work to magazines. The stories and poems he wrote were dark, realistic and focused on the losing side of the American Dream. Bukowski used his own life as the basis for his writing, the soul killing aspect of manual labor, the refusal to conform to the capitalist way of life, the troubles of being a struggling writer and the hardships of love being the main themes in his work. His writing was dark and bitter but also hilarious. He had found a way to make fun of the tragedy of his life.
 

One of the magazine editors he sent his writings to was Barbara Frye, a woman with a physical deformity. She had a deformity of the neck which made her look a bit strange and she had a hard time finding a man because of this. Barbara liked Bukowski’s poems and published them in Harlequin magazine. She and Bukowski started writing to each other and Bukowski ended up marrying her. The marriage didn’t work out. Barbara had a miscarriage and divorced him after two years. Bukowski went back to living alone in cheap rooms, drinking and writing. Always writing.
 

He got one of his first breaks when Jon and ‘Gypsy Lou’ Webb published some of his poems in the first edition of their aptly named magazine The Outsider. It was around this time Bukowski began seeing his first girlfriend Jane again. Jane had started drinking more and more and was in a terrible state. She ultimately drank herself to death in 1962, leaving Bukowski devastated. He started drinking more heavily himself after that, not being able to cope with the loss of his first love.

The death of Jane inspired Bukowski to write one of his most touching poems titled:

‘For Jane: With All the Love I Had, Which Was Not Enough’:

I pick up the skirt,
I pick up the sparkling beads
in black,
this thing that moved once
around flesh,
and I call God a liar,
I say anything that moved
like that
or knew
my name
could never die
in the common verity of dying,
and I pick
up her lovely
dress,
all her loveliness gone,
and I speak to all the gods,
Jewish gods, Christ-gods,
chips of blinking things,
idols, pills, bread,
fathoms, risks,
knowledgeable surrender,
rats in the gravy of two gone quite mad
without a chance,
hummingbird knowledge, hummingbird chance,
I lean upon this,
I lean on all of this
and I know
her dress upon my arm
but
they will not
give her back to me.

 

(End of part one. Stay tuned for part two)

Feel free to leave a comment below.

Wesley Stuer
July 12, 2018