Two years ago I started reading the works of Charles Bukowski. I discovered him more or less by accident; first, I read a review by Roger Ebert of a documentary about him, and second, I heard the song named after him on Modest Mouse’s last album. So I was in Borders one day, and I figured what the hell. I can be a very slow, undisciplined reader, so I’ve not yet gotten through his complete works. I’ve read three collections of short stories, the latest of which I finished today, and two volumes of early poetry. No novels, no later poetry, no essays, although I do have his Notes From a Dirty Old Man, just haven’t read it yet. But I’m working on it. I like his stuff. I want to read more of it. Last week, I read Jim Emerson’s review of the film Factotum, based on Bukowski’s novel, on Ebert’s website, and it got me to thinking.
I haven’t seen the movie yet, but late in the review Emerson asserts as inevitable that one must outgrow Bukowski, that he’s mostly for angry teenagers, or us perpetually malcontented college students. This bothers me, particularly since I belong to one of the groups that Emerson reckons ought to be maturing beyond the alcohol-soaked musings of one Charles Bukowski. Let me try to work it out.
Emerson makes some good points. He describes Bukowski as “self-mythologizing,” and he definitely is that. His protagonists are often barely disguised versions of himself – Hank Chinaski is his favorite alter ego, but there are many others. While the Bukowski-surrogate is rarely the noblest or most admirable character in the story – in Bukowski, noble and admirable people are few and far between – he is usually the least-phony, or the one most able to see through the bullshit that others try to lay on him. And there is often the feeling that the Bukowski character is pulling one over on society; while the rest of us have to work our asses off at jobs we hate, Hank Chinaski can shack up with a string of women, work a shit job here or there to get money in his pocket, and drink and gamble to his heart’s content, basically live the life he wants. Bukowski pulls no punches in describing the squalor and desperation of the world his characters inhabit, but he also manages to make that world seem undeniably romantic.
And yet, I’m convinced that outgrowing Bukowski is a bad idea. Perhaps not outgrowing him so much as leaving him behind. I’m not suggesting we should all read Bukowski and then just stop reading. He’s not the ultimate evolution of the writer, the poet, the social critic. He’s not suited to be the sole foundation for a philosophy of life. He’d make a shitty guru. But who wouldn’t make a shitty guru? The point isn’t to hold the guy’s work up as the perfected triumph of civilization – the point is to find what’s in there for us to learn. And Bukowski teaches me lessons, as a writer and as a human being, that I don’t ever want to outgrow.
For one thing, he tells me to always do my best, to go all out. “Don’t Try,” his epitaph reads. Meaning, “Do.” Emerson describes him as a boozy motivational speaker when he talks like this. So be it. The message is trite, but it sounds better coming out of Bukowski than from behind the porcelain smile of a fuck like Tony Robbins. Bukowski tells me not only to do my best, but to do my own thing. Fuck what other people think – if that’s what you want to do, then do that. My Dad taught me the same thing years before I ever heard of Bukowski, but he never published anything, so I can’t tell you to go read my Dad, now can I?
For another thing, Bukowski writes about the poor, the beaten-down, the swept-aside. Most of his stories take place in the gutter. The few that take place in the penthouse always have a point to make, usually about the kind of assholes that live in the penthouse. He writes about himself, and people like himself, who live from paycheck to paycheck and bottle to bottle. They are alcoholics, they are drug addicts, they are murderers and rapists, they are gamblers and they are prostitutes. Bukowski doesn’t excuse them, he doesn’t deny their ugliness and immorality. He humanizes them. He places them in context. He says, hey, these are not good people I’m writing about, but they are people, and they’re no worse than those assholes up in the penthouse – in fact, they might be better. Sometimes the bad people in a Bukowski story have a reason for being bad; sometimes they don’t. Sometimes Hank Chinaski is almost an optimist, falling in love, trying to be a writer; and sometimes he is a foul, mean, hateful old drunk. “The poor,” Bukowski writes, “knew life.” They aren’t pretty. Bukowski doesn’t try to make them pretty. But he does make them real. That’s important. Those are the people I want to write about – not necessarily the drunks, the rapists, the killers – the real people, the poor people, the common people, the people who make up the world.
So yes, by all means, take Jim Emerson’s advice and move beyond Bukowski. Read writers who are more eloquent, more universal, more diverse. Read writers who are less self-involved, and who write about things besides drinking, going to the track, fucking, and fighting. But as you do, don’t leave Bukowski behind. Take him with you. No matter what age you are, there’s a lot he can teach you.