Charles Bukowski would have been 95 years old today. The patron saint of writing drunks or drunken writers, Bukowski was a true American original who stared into the abyss and lived to tell the tale, producing more than 50 books of poetry and prose during his astonishingly prolific career. Through it all, Bukowski rode the edge of his own personal experiences, turning the day-to-day events of his life, however mundane, into art. Today we celebrate the birthday of this literary icon by republishing a piece that originally appeared on this date in 2013, when I visited his old home in Hollywood and hoisted a few at one of his old haunts. Cheers! TS
I was 17 years old when I saw Barfly for the first time. My friend’s father had LaserDisc and among the titles which otherwise included The Last Remake of Beau Geste and Young Frankenstein (my friend’s old man really loved Marty Feldman I guess) was Barfly, a film about the exploits of a drunken bum who sat around his lousy apartment all day listening to classical music and writing poetry and fighting in bars and loving these damaged women and fighting with his neighbors and staining his undershorts. His name was Henry Chinaski, and you could smell him coming off the screen, reeking of whiskey, cigarette smoke, piss, shit, and blood. Unwashed, rumpled and bruised, there was still something magnificent about him, a courageous never-say-die attitude, a kind of self-admiration that shone through no matter what.
“This is a world where everybody has to do something, they gotta be something. Sometimes I just get tired of thinking about all the things I don’t want to do, all the things I don’t want to be.” I could relate to this sentiment, since my mother had been discussing how I might become a lawyer some day, following in the footsteps of my father. My peers in prep school were all similarly beginning to map the course of their futures, aligning themselves with their family’s real estate firms and dental practices, discussing where they would go to graduate school, what their first year earnings expectations upon graduation might be, and so on. The plan was established. Good schools. Good jobs. Good families. We would all simply repeat our parents’ lives, letter for letter, stroke for stroke. What were my other options? What else could I do with me life? Do I have a say in the matter at all? The depiction of the writer’s craft as embodied by Chinaski, namely getting drunk and getting in fights and persuading woman to part with their virtue, seemed a career that could remain fascinating for a lifetime, a decade at least, which was more than I could say about becoming a lawyer, which already seemed stale out of the gate.
I guess even as I watched it the first time, Barfly was already becoming my favorite film. I loved it because it’s hero was so anti-heroic and because his world was so different from mine. Barfly was a refreshing antidote to the conformity of my coat and tie world. Here were the assorted lowlifes of the streets, the down and outs, the poor, the worthless. All they wanted was another drink in some romanticized scum hole, reveling in their vices. Wow! I thought. Chinaski was the kind of guy who couldn’t have cared less about law school.
For a solid six months me and my friend sat on his couch, memorizing Barfly, cherishing the strange performance of Mikey Rourke, in what I would suggest is still the best performance of his career, quoting the movie to each other like some kind of secret language that only we understood. “Hey baby, this is a cage with golden bars,” we would say.
A couple of years later, when I was in college, I would discover the books of Charles Bukowski. And then I would discover that Charles Bukowski often wrote through the eyes of his alter-ego Henry Chinaski and then it all sort of made sense. Of course! The rooming houses, the rough and tumble day-to-day life on the streets as seen through the eyes of an alcoholic postman.
What I loved about Charles Bukowski’s work was it’s rawness, periodically illuminated by lines that would strike like a flash of lightning.
it’s the order of things: each ones
gets a taste of honey
then the knife.
– from “the proud thin dying”
I loved the “reality” of his poems and stories, the simple descriptions of the life he saw around him, the race track, the bars, the post office. I liked the way he put it all out there, his contempt, his fears, his failures. There was spirit in his voice, a love for life burning there at the core, an admonition that you must be brave and face whatever comes, as he does here at the end of his well-known poem “Roll the Dice”:
if you’re going to try,
go all the way.
there is no other feeling like
you will be alone with the gods
and the nights will flame with
do it, do it, do it.
all the way
all the way.
you will ride life straight to
perfect laughter, its
the only good fight
He had a beautiful and poetic speaking voice that seemed to perfectly translate to the page.
At the time I discovered Buk, I was immersed in the rigors of my English degree at Loyola College in Baltimore, a conservative Catholic college with about as much action as a seminary. When I discovered Buk I was trapped in an endurance marathon of 19th century American literature that included Charles Dickens and Anthony Trollope and Henry James, who seemed unable to progress into any scene without first describing in the most meticulous detail possible every single item of furnishing in a room, the history of it’s construction, it weight and size, as well as a thread by thread analysis of every character’s wardrobe, down to their unseen undergarments, and the heels of their shoes. It might take fifty pages for two people to say hello. It was dull stuff. And then along came Bukowski. Fast, almost scattershot, some of it almost generic descriptions of rooms and tables and chairs, skeletons for your imagination to flesh, poem after poem, story after story, many of them revolving around the same set of core themes: getting drunk, women, fights, death, poverty, but all of them somehow slightly different as you walked in his shoes through the course of his day-to-day life. Much of the work is remarkably funny, if tragically funny, and much of it is wise, filled with acceptance, understanding and compassion for all of life’s wounded creatures, of which Charles Bukowski was one, and in that a kind of forgiveness for the failures of mankind.
Charles Bukowski’s birthday is August 16th, a day after my own, in this the cruelest month in Los Angeles when the sun beams down with a kind of ruthless indifference, and you wake up already wet with sweat, dreaming of the small hours of the night.
To celebrate our birthdays this year, I paid a visit to his old bungalow located in a gritty part of Hollywood, on DeLongpre Ave, and now a historic landmark, where he lived for nine years and wrote some fine work including his novel Women.
And then I went out to Musso and Frank’s with a friend and we ate steaks and drank scotch and martinis.
Just as Buk surely would have wanted.
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