Dear Mrs. Crosby,
I don't know who I am.
That opening quote probably needs some explaining. It was the response Bukowski sent to the editor of Black Sun Press following her request for a short autobiographical sketch. That was in 1946 so he would be in his mid-twenties and not well known, still to become famous, let alone infamous and perhaps even notorious before being consumed by a myth of his own making. Since his death in 1994 only the myth remains. Most myths have elements of truth in them and you would think considering that it is such a modern myth that it would be relatively easy to separate fact from fiction; all it would take would be some careful research and asking the right questions of the right people, the majority of whom are still alive. One cannot fault Howard Sounes on the first point. He spent two years talking to everyone who would talk to him and it looks like all the major players were happy to sit and converse at length.
All of what is presented as evidence, however, is anecdotal or circumstantial. It has to be. Unlike other biographers, like Neeli Cherkovski, Howard Sounes never knew Bukowski personally; he’s not even an American. To be fair he has done a sterling job in researching his subject. He devotes 44 pages to listing exactly where he got every scrap of information, those at least that aren’t explicitly referenced within the text itself. I’m not convinced that he necessarily asked the right questions or asked enough questions but if you’re like me and know nothing about Charles Bukowski then I believe this to be a solid piece of work. After finishing the biography I made a point of watching the excellent documentary Born into This which this time was the result of seven years worth of research and I have to tell you the book stands up well against the film; they actually complement each other well, although witnessing some of the things the book only describes certainly puts them into perspective; I’ll come back to you on that.
Many writers mine their lives, there’s nothing special there, but Bukowski more than most. With the exception of his last book, Pulp, all his novels comprise an extended autobiography, and Sounes wisely uses them as a template for his own biography but even they do not tell the whole story. Despite what his publisher, John Martin, has to say about him:
He hated any kind of dishonesty. He hated deceit.
Bukowski’s versions of events are not as accurate as one might imagine especially considering the unflattering, embarrassing and downright disturbing things about himself he did choose to include. He may be the protagonist of his books but he’s no one’s hero. The way Bukowski put it himself, ninety-three percent of what he wrote was accurate and seven percent was “improved upon”. The simple fact is that anyone who came in contact with him ran the risk of being fictionalised and rarely discreetly. When he was working on the book that would become Women Bukowski met Linda Lee Beighle who became the basis of the character, Sara:
‘I was basically one of his guinea pigs,’ she says, ‘one of those he researched like a curiosity.’
To return to that opening quote, I’m not sure many of us could really say that we know ourselves when we’re in our twenties. Bukowski was, of course, being facetious when he wrote that letter but I’m sure his answer hung over his head for the rest of his life. You might think having made a statement like that that I’m aiming to paint Bukowski – ‘Hank’ to his friends – as a complex individual. I’m not sure that he was. His wants are simple enough to list: he wanted to write, to drink, to gamble, to have sex when he felt like it; he wanted to be alone when he needed to be and to have company when he didn’t. He didn’t want a job, let alone a career, and bitterly resented having to give up his times to mundane pursuits like trying to make a buck.
There is a scene in the film Factotum (based primarily on Hank’s second novel of the same name) where his alter ego, Hank Chinaski, gets fired for not pulling his weight and he fires back at his boss:
I've given you my time, which is all I have to give — it's all any man has to give.
It’s straight out of the book and has become something of a credo. A man’s time on this earth is limited. You can’t reclaim a wasted second of it. In a letter to his publisher in 1987 he talked about “coming in from the factory with your hands and your body and your mind ripped and days stolen from you...” – italics mine
This refusal to conform to the capitalist convention of an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay, also the refusal to try and ‘get on’ in life, makes Bukowski a radical American writer.
He wasn’t interested in living the so-called American dream. The irony is that once success came to him in later life he could tick all the boxes with ease.
A number of attempts have been made to film his books. Barfly is probably the most notable (with Micky Rourke) and benefitted from having Bukowski on set most of the time, then there’s Tales of Ordinary Madness (with Ben Gazarra) and, most recently, Factotum, (with Matt Dillon doing, in my opinion, the best job of the three). None of them quite manage to capture what Bukowski was like; they said their lines, his words, but I don’t think any of them truly got under his skin. For starters, none of them was big enough and ugly enough to pull off the part. And no one, especially Hank, would suggest that he was anything more than what he was. Singer Bob Lind describes him as “dramatically ugly” which I think just about does him justice.
Let’s take his face. There we do get a simple explanation: as a youth he suffered for years with acne vulgaris, the worst case the doctors at the gleaming new Los Angeles County hospital had seen:
The acne was not simple spots, but a pestilence of boils ‘the size of apples’ he said. They erupted on every surface, and in every crevice, of his head and upper body: they were on his eyelids, on his nose, behind his ears and in the hair follicles on his head. They were even inside his mouth.
To see the physical effects all you have to do is take a look at a photograph of his pockmarked face like the one below taken by Hugh Candyside:
The second think that was wrong with the actors is that none had his beer gut. Dillon did bulk up to play the role but not enough. The question as to whether Bukowski was an alcoholic is addressed in the biography. Sounes provides the evidence and you can draw your own conclusions. He certainly states his own opinion unequivocally. Hank did not think he was though. Neither did his second wife, Linda Lee:
Linda Lee told [Sounes] that Bukowski was a ‘smart drunk’, making a distinction in her mind between people who are incapacitated by booze and those, like Bukowski, who drink to excess and yet still do their work. ‘Hank remained prolific ... I don’t call that alcoholism. I think alcoholism is when you drink and you can’t do anything anymore.’
Whatever name you give to it what is very clear is that alcohol was a crutch he leaned on heavily for most of his life. After falling ill with TB he did give up drink (and from all accounts with little difficulty) for many months and never returned to his binge drinking after that. I’m sure there are some who would argue that a true alcoholic wouldn’t be able to do that. I’m not going to argue the point.
What’s the first thing you think of when I mention the name ‘Oliver Reed’? I asked my wife the other day and her one word response was: “Drunk.” It was the first thing I thought too, which was why I asked. When we talked about it a bit more the visual memory that the name had triggered was his appearance on Aspel and Company in 1986 when the actor embarrassed himself in front of an audience of millions. Not the only time but clearly the most memorable. Years later when asked by Paul O’Grady about the incident, Michael Aspel had this to say:
Half of the time badly behaved guests are good telly. And you know when Oliver Reed got drunk... I mean I was delighted. People said 'Aspel was furious'. I was thrilled! You don't expect him to come on and behave like... a bank manager; if he had it would be disappointing. But we knew he was sloshed because he'd taken fifteen stops... and a couple of pints of gin and tonic. So when he lurched on I thought 'This is great!'
It’s a fact. I wonder how much screen time has been taken up over the years repeating that clip. Bukowski for the main part steered clear of chat shows, however, in 1978 he appeared on the French show Apostrophes and in the end needed to be shown off.
Wisely he stayed clear of them after that but he did not stop public readings and the word spread. Hank was a surprisingly nervous man behind all the bluster and believed he needed drink to enable him to give his readings. Often he would polish off a couple of bottles of wine while actually giving the reading and needless to say there was always someone in the audience ready to feed him lines and work him into a state. So the same kind of people went to see him read as go to wait for race car drivers to crash. Charles Bukowski was a car crash waiting to happen. Sounes describes a reading at Baudelaire’s nightclub in Santa Barbara in 1970:
[S]ubtlety was lost on this crowd. They expected an exhibition from the dirty old man: sex poems, drinking poems and scatology.
It seemed like they wanted him to insult them. ‘You disgusting creatures,’ he said obligingly. ‘You make me sick.’ They laughed like hyenas at that.
How does a man get to that stage? You probably expect him to have had a miserable childhood and you’d be right. Sadly the only three people who could talk about what when on when he was a kid growing up are all gone and we’re left with his own account, primarily in the book Ham on Rye plus what he told his friends and in interviews. The degree of Hank’s honesty is something Sounes brings into question though:
[W]hile he could be extraordinarily honest as a writer, a close examination of the facts of Bukowski’s life leads one to question whether, to make himself more picaresque for the reader, he didn’t ‘improve upon’ a great deal more of his life story than he said.
For starters Bukowski’s assertion that he was born a bastard is inaccurate: he was born on August 16th, 1920; his parent had married, albeit only a month before, on July 15th. He was baptized at the Roman Catholic cathedral in Andernach, Germany, and christened Heinreich Karl Bukowski. Had the German economy not collapsed in 1923 we might be remembering him as a German writer if indeed he would have become a writer at all had he stayed on his native soil. As it happens his parents chose to emigrate to the United States. They ended up in Baltimore and did everything they could to fit in including Americanising their names; his mother, Katharina, became Kate; Bukowski like his dad who was an American soldier, Henry Charles; they “also changed the pronunciation to Buk-cow-ski, as opposed to the harder European pronunciation, which is Buk-ov-ski.”
The family moved to 2122 Longwood Avenue in Los Angeles, a nicer home than the ones he had been used to, and his parents used to clean the place from top to bottom every weekend. Hank’s job was to mow the lawn, a job no doubt many of his peers would also have been tasked with. This should not have been a big job as the lawns were quite small but his father insisted that when his son had finished not “one hair” was to be sticking up, an impossible task. If he failed, which he invariably did, a beating followed in the bathroom with a razor strap:
The weekend manicuring of the lawn, and the inevitable punishments that followed for his failure to do the job properly, and for many other reasons too, became part of the routine of childhood. It was one of the reasons Bukowski came to talk so slowly – he learned to think before speaking in case he upset his father.
You would think with the kind of childhood he experienced the boy would have been perpetually running away but this was not the case. He did spend a lot of time in his bedroom – it was the only time he felt safe – and his earliest stories were inspired by the sounds of aeroplanes “droning overhead on their way to Los Angeles airport.” He stayed with them, graduated high school, and then started to look for work. When not actively engaged in that pursuit, he could be found in the Los Angeles Public Library on West 5th Street where, if any moment in his life could be described in such terms, he had an epiphany, my word, not his nor Sounes’; Bukowski likened the moment “to discovering ‘gold in the city dump.’” It happened when he started reading John Fante’s novel, Ask the Dust:
Ask the Dust is written in a strikingly spare and lucid style with short paragraphs and short chapters, but it was the subject matter that was, at least initially, more interesting to Bukowski. The hero, Arturo Bandini, is a twenty-year-old would-be writer, the son of immigrant parents, who feels cut off from society. He wants to write about life and love, but has little experience of either so he goes to live in a flophouse at a place called Bunker Hill where he meets and falls in love with a beautiful girl.
He didn’t jump immediately into Bandini’s shoes, although he did make “a perfunctory attempt to live the conventional life his parents expected” but as he let them down at every opportunity it seemed it was only a matter of time before he answered the call of destiny or if not destiny exactly then at least inevitability. And so began the Barfly years, a long apprenticeship in which he only worked enough to enable him to write; at times he subsisted on one candy bar a day.
That was all a man needed: hope. It was a lack of hope that discouraged a man. I remembered my New Orleans days, living on two-five cent candy bars a day for weeks at a time in order to have leisure to write. But starvation, unfortunately, didn't improve art. It only hindered it. A man's soul was rooted in his stomach. A man could write much better after eating a porterhouse steak and drinking a pint of whiskey than he could ever write after eating a nickel candy bar. The myth of the starving artist was a hoax. – from Factotum
He did his duty when the time came and registered for the draft for World War II even writing “to his father that he was willing to serve. He passed the physical examination, but after a routine psychiatric test he was excused military service for mental reasons and classified 4-F or as he put it, ‘psycho’.” The specific reason given on his draft card was actually “extreme sensitivity” a quality that might stand a would-be writer in good stead but not one that would sit too well on the shoulders of the man he would present himself to have been at this time. Looks can be deceiving and just because Bukowski looked like a hobo didn’t make him one. Among other truths Sounes reveals that although Bukowski claimed a great affinity with the hobos who rode the rails during the ’30s and ’40s, he never rode a boxcar nor hitchhiked in his life.
He did drink. That much is true, witnessed, documented, filmed. In fact the first word Bukowski’s daughter, Marina, learned to read was "liquor" since Hank spent so much of his leisure time in a drunken stupor. And, of course, as the years go by and he starts to live his life more and more in the public domain, facts do start to take over from fiction. But it really is, for me anyway, the earlier years in his life that are the most interesting, seeing him develop and yet in thirty-odd pages we’re already into the 1950s. It feels rushed. But did Sounes just cover the bullet points or did he say all he could reliably say? I’m not sure.
He also womanised. Or at least he would have you believe that. The fact was that the women only came with fame and, like any man, for a while he was like a kid in a candy store:
how come you’re not unlisted?
for a man of 55 who didn’t get laid
until he was 23
and not very often until he was 50
I think I should stay listed
via Pacific Telephone
until I get as much as
the average man has had.
There are two things one should bear in mind when thinking about this biography, firstly, has the author done a good job? I would say he has having read as much as I’ve had time to from other sources. Some reviewers believe that it will stand as the definitive biography. Having not read any other I can’t say yay or nay to that but I honestly feel that 250 pages is a tad on the short side. My three biographies of Beckett fall between 600 and 850 pages and if Bukowski was such a great writer then surely more could have been said and maybe will be. That was the main objection others raised to the book. The second thing you might want to bear in mind is that although the book is well written, the subject matter may not be to everyone’s tastes. There is much unpleasantness in Bukowski’s life and there is little he shies away from discussing whether it be accidentally sodomising a male friend (apparently you had to be there) to kicking his current girlfriend during a TV interview, both under the influence of alcohol. It’s actually surprising that during his life he wasn’t more violent, considering his childhood, but he talked a good fight more often than not.
One thing that did please me about Sounes is that he quotes extensively from Bukowski’s own writing and primarily from his poetry. Until recently I didn’t even know he was a poet but the fact is he wrote more in a year – not one particular year, any year – than most of us produce in a lifetime. He was phenomenally prolific. Needless to say a lot of what he wrote was bad but that never stopped him. In the early days he never kept carbons of his work, he just sent the stuff out religiously and if it got published it got published and if it came back it came back. Probably more than any other writer he kept his eyes firmly fixed on what he was doing and took little interest in what he had done. Even when the money started trickling in he didn’t step back a gear, if anything he became almost frantic, terrified that it would dry up.
I was prepared not to like him. I expected not to like him. The thing was, like Tony Hancock (another famous drunk if you’re unaware of him), he was surprisingly well-liked and I think the unpleasantness can be blown out of proportion. When watching the documentary he broke into tears twice, once when reading an old poem about an old love he pined after for years, and once at his wedding; his vulnerability comes out when you see him at one point rushing to a window to see if ‘Cupcakes’, his then girlfriend (there were a good many), was coming in; he’s also visibly disturbed when visiting his childhood home.
I’m not fond of drunks. That’s putting it mildly. I’ve had bad experiences and that’s all I’m going to say about that. So I don’t romanticise the alcoholic writer. I do acknowledge that there are reasons behind all things and a man is not a caricature although some provide caricaturists with better material than others. Bukowski cared deeply for his daughter – I’ve read and viewed nothing that suggests he mistreated or neglected her in any way and she speaks fondly of him – he was a cat person and collected strays (not sure how much I want to read into that); his preference in music was for classical, particularly Mozart, “or ‘The Bee’ as he affectionately called Beethoven” and he would often listen to a classical radio station into the early hours of the morning.
He drank but “had little time for drugs”; he could be misogynistic but as soon as he got a woman pregnant the first thing he did was propose; to put things in perspective he was really more of a misanthrope than a misogynist; “when he was sober, Bukowski was quiet and polite, even deferential [but] when he got drunk – especially in sophisticated company, which made him uneasy – he became Bukowski the bad: mischievous, argumentative, even violent;” he gambled – he once totted up that he’d frittered away $10,000 – but he was also extraordinarily careful with his money. He is far more interesting than even he would have you believe.
I’ve not said much about Bukowski’s writing in this review. The main reason for this is that I was also sent a substantial volume of his poetry and I’ll talk about that when I review it in a wee while. The bottom line after spending the best part of a week getting to know this guy is that I’m looking forward to reading more. That I didn’t expect; not for one minute.
Howard Sounes, who was born in Welling in south east London in 1965, made his living as a newspaper journalist until the mid-1990s when he broke major stories in the case of Fred and Rosemary West: one of the most sensational murder stories in recent British history. Sounes went on to cover the case extensively, for the Sunday Mirror and Daily Mirror. His book, Fred & Rose, was published at the conclusion of Rose West's trial for murder in 1995.
Since then he has written biographies of Bob Dylan, Bukowski (two books, there is a companion book to Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life called Bukowski in Pictures), a history of golf from the 1950s called The Wicked Game and a cultural history of the 1970s, Seventies: The Sights, Sounds and Ideas of a Brilliant Decade. He is currently researching a book entitled Heist, about the 2006 Tonbridge Securitas robbery and a biography of Sir Paul McCartney.