February 12, 2017

Rediscovering Hank


One afternoon in 1988, an erudite, well-dressed and clearly educated middle-aged black woman stopped by the used book stand where I was working at the time, glanced around at the selection, then turned to me.

            “I was just wondering,” she asked, “if you might have anything by Charles Bukowski? He’s a rotten sexist son of a bitch, but I love him anyway.”

            I always found that really funny and strange.

            When I first left for college, my core library, the books that meant the most to me at the time, consisted of works by Henry Miller, Norman Mailer, a bunch of Germans, a bunch of Russians, Nietzsche, Albert Camus, a few random philosophers, T.S. Eliot, the Beats, Beckett, Gunter Grass and, quite accidentally, Hunter Thompson. With the exception of the Thompson, they were deep and serious works of widely-recognized literary import, befitting a horn-rimmed smarty-pants geek on his way to Chicago to study philosophy.

            Once I landed in Madison in 1984, the core library began to morph as I took more off-kilter courses and started hanging out with sociopaths, literate junkies and punks. So along came Celine and Jim Thompson, Hubert Selby, Nelson Algren, Jerzy Kosinski, and all the other hepcat authors so blindly worshipped by young skinny white punks who fantasized about being tough, street-smart misanthropic lowlifes. Within that pantheon, the two names that topped every goddamn list without fail, the two untouchable and unshakable idols and role models for every last fucking would-be tough guy white boy on earth were Hunter Thompson and Charles Bukowski. So much so that most of the blinkered nerds who imagined themselves living the wild life in the gutter with the other outlaws and outcasts weren’t even aware of all those other authors who had paved the way before them.

            Although I’d started reading Thompson in high school, I came to the Bukowski show a little late, only after the likes of Miller and Selby and Celine landed me deep in the prevailing mindset shared by so many of my apparent peers. It was 1985, I was nineteen or twenty, when Grinch pointed me toward him. Grinch himself had been pointed toward Buk by a wild-ass, two-fisted junkie poet named Brian Douglas Clemons. On that recommendation, I went to a local bookstore where they hadn’t yet learned to keep the Bukowskis locked up behind the front counter and lifted copies of Hot Water Music and Love is a Dog From Hell—short story and poetry collections, respectively.

            I forget where I was headed, but I cracked the latter for the first time on a Trailways bus headed somewhere, and confess the poems didn’t exactly smack me in the brain and guts like the lightning bolt I’d been led to expect. It wasn’t like reading Miller’s Black Spring for the first time, or Celine’s Death on the Installment Plan. There was nothing fancy about them—they were simple, spare and straightforward prose poems, though he knew what words to drop in to craft a portrait of ugly relationships and life on the bum. I finished the book long before the trip was over and put it away without thinking about it too much more.

            It was only when I moved on to the short stories that I started to get a deeper picture of the persona and came to more fully grasp what everyone else was so gaga about.

            The stories about the bars, the cheap rooms, the streets, the low-level violence, the despair, the grim humor, the deranged women and the endless drunken struggle to get by were stripped clean of pretense, romance, everything but a solid sad truth that could only come from experiences all these sniveling young devotees would never know.

            Well, before you knew it I was one of those sniveling young devotees myself, and I would be a lying fool to deny he was the primary influence on the direction and form of my early writing. There was no escaping it, and it was painfully obvious.

            By the time of his death in 1994, I had a complete collection of all his published work on the top shelf of one of my bookcases, including several first editions, early chapbooks and a few signed copies. But by that point two strange things occurred to me. First, in his later work, after he’d hit it reasonably big with a couple of movie deals, had hundreds of thousands of devoted, even obsessive fans around the world, and was living comfortably with his young wife and new sports car in San Pedro, his insistence on continuing to write about those rented rooms and bar fights began to ring a little false. He was clearly trying to keep up the persona despite his improved circumstances and cultural status in order to please his fans. It was all sounding kinda tired and half-hearted and repetitious. More importantly though, recognizing what a standard, boring and predictable reference point he’d become for so many jackaninnies out there, I recoiled in horror that I’d ever been one of them. I started taking drastic measures to distance myself from him. I had to purge him from my system. I not only stopped making any direct or oblique Bukowski references in what I wrote, I even began culling down the library, giving shopping bags full of all those Black Sparrow editions to friends. Even those signed editions went away. In the end I still hung on to a few personal favorites for old times’ sake, including that first copy of Love is a Dog From Hell, but I just left them up there on the shelf.

            What followed was over twenty years of silence, during which I never read him, never mentioned him except in a sneering, dismissive way, and barely thought of him at all except as that trite and predictable white boy hipster touchstone.

            But after that twenty or more years, another funny thing happened. I got it in my head again that I wanted to see Barfly, Barbet Schroeder’s 1987 film written by Bukowski and starring Mickey Rourke as a young Buk stand-in. I have a lot of stories about that movie for some reason, though I won’t bother telling them here.

            It’s not a very good movie, which Bukowski himself would later admit. The performances and line readings are dreadful, and the dialogue, which might have looked great on the page, was not meant to be recited aloud. It’s still a memorable film, but not always for the intended reasons. After seeing it again, though, something got stuck in my head. Although I’d dumped most of the library, I still had all my Bukowski movies, including narrative films with all-star casts, documentaries, and a four-hour set of Buk just talking and reading poems.

            I began to once again troll through all that material, and as I did I was reawakened. Fuck those little fancy boys who latched onto him—he was a singular and grand American literary figure, both in his life and his work. Like Henry Miller, he’d shone a bright and harsh light into the shadows, elevating the misbegotten, the lost, the destitute and desperate, turning an often ignored sad and brutal reality into a poetry whose simplicity disguised its strength. Once again after those twenty years he was speaking to me. There was no fantasy about it this time, no emulation, no wannabeism or pose. I like to think I’ve grown a bit wiser through my own experience, a bit more clear-eyed in spite of everything, and so could once again, the fuckers and worshipful be damned to hell, appreciate it for what it was and is. And now I’m smacking myself in the head for giving all those books away—those goddamn things would have been worth thousands today. Still, sometimes its nice to go back to something you’ve discarded and recognize what it meant all along.

            So toward that end, let me close here with a personal Bukowski favorite that still holds up and rings truer than ever:


The Genius Of The Crowd


there is enough treachery, hatred violence absurdity in the average

human being to supply any given army on any given day


and the best at murder are those who preach against it

and the best at hate are those who preach love

and the best at war finally are those who preach peace


those who preach god, need god

those who preach peace do not have peace

those who preach peace do not have love


beware the preachers

beware the knowers

beware those who are always reading books

beware those who either detest poverty

or are proud of it

beware those quick to praise

for they need praise in return

beware those who are quick to censor

they are afraid of what they do not know

beware those who seek constant crowds for

they are nothing alone

beware the average man the average woman

beware their love, their love is average

seeks average


but there is genius in their hatred

there is enough genius in their hatred to kill you

to kill anybody

not wanting solitude

not understanding solitude

they will attempt to destroy anything

that differs from their own

not being able to create art

they will not understand art

they will consider their failure as creators

only as a failure of the world

not being able to love fully

they will believe your love incomplete

and then they will hate you

and their hatred will be perfect


like a shining diamond

like a knife

like a mountain

like a tiger

like hemlock


their finest art


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