Happy Birthday, Hank

Author Charles Bukowski would have been 93 yesterday. That would be a ripe old age even for the best of us but would have been well-nigh impossible for Bukowski, who probably never had a healthy day in his life and compounded his miseries with his alcohol-fueled lifestyle which in turn provided the frank fodder for his prose and verse. Bukowski, the poet laureate and prose prince of the down and out, was capable of inducing laughter or tears from readers within a sentence or two or on many occasions within the same sentence. I attended a reading of his in the early 1970s during which he got me to laughing so hard that he had to stop the proceedings until I fully recovered. Actually, I never really did. Reading Bukowski, let alone listening to him, was and is a life-changing event.
My introduction to Bukowski in was accomplished through a great guy named Mark Clayman who in the 1970s was the owner and operator of “Upstairs Books.”  It was a wonderful hole in the wall located at the top of two short staircases in a brick building in the Spicertown neighborhood adjacent to the University of Akron. One rainy afternoon Mark thrust a trade paperback book (I am deliberately omitting the somewhat scatological title) into my hands and said, “Have you read Bukowski? I swear by him.” He was so sure that I would like the book that he offered me a full refund if I didn’t like it. His money was safe. I have gone through five copies of that book over the years, the replacements occasioned by coffee spills and ill-advised lendings to the wrong people and get-out-of-Dodge moves subsequent to divorce.   I’m still reading and re-reading it, as well as other Bukowski short story collections, his novels, and even his poetry collections (and I NEVER read poetry anymore) some forty odd years later. 

It took a while for the public to catch up with Bukowski. His writing was stark and his subject matter was ugly. His books throughout most of his life were only available through small presses, most of which have since gone out of business. He eventually hit the big time; HarperCollins is his publisher now, and it even has a website set up to commemorate his birthday at http://happybirthdayBukowskidotcom. The subject matter remains the same, however. If you drive hurriedly through impoverished neighborhoods where the only going concerns are sad-looking taverns strategically placed every half block or so, the folks propped up on bar stools inside are the stuff and substance of Bukowski’s work. They would include the author himself, who wrote several autobiographical novels featuring Hank Chinaski, his fictional alter ego. 

Bukowski may have been an unapologetic drunk and a failure at conventional work, but he had no illusions about himself and no reservations about baring his soul for the world to see in prose shot through with an angry but resigned weariness fueled by his near-constant intake of whatever alcohol he could get his hands on at any given moment. At the end of the day, however, he described the ugly beautifully, as well as the frustration and difficulty of writing, the only occupation at which he attained some level of success, and that in spite of himself.
Pulp, Bukowski’s last novel,  was completed and published shortly before his death. It is a vicious sendup of the hard-boiled detective genre, containing exaggerated clichés and stereotypical situations which stand as a deliberate textbook example of how not to write a genre novel, and should therefore be read by anyone who intends to write one. As always, no punches are pulled, so that at times one is tempted to look away from the page even as the pull of his words makes doing so impossible. It is also however, infused with Bukowski’s knowledge and frustration over the fact that time for him was running out. Despite his prodigious output,  the man had so much more left to say.
 If you’re unfamiliar with Bukowski, check out the website I mentioned earlier and sample a book or two. If you have read his work, pull a volume down from your shelf and revisit a stark example of how the job of writing is fittingly and properly done.

29 thoughts on “Happy Birthday, Hank

  1. Amanda, the movie BARFLY with Mickey Rourke was based on Bukowski’s life and a couple of his autobiographical works. Uncomfortable viewing.

  2. It’s not often I hear someone get so passionate about another writer. I have one of his collections on its way.

    Any suggestions on the ‘best’ Burkowski books? I’m not trying to be lazy (I successfully achieved that years ago!) but my current backlog of gotta read books is sitting at 20+.

    • Thank you for your trust, Paul. It’s one of the highest compliments one can give me. I would start with POST OFFICE, which is relatively short and a good way to kind of ease into Bukowski’s life. If you have a Kindle (or the free software) you can also grab samples of the first chapter or two to see how you like it. Enjoy!

  3. Joe,
    Always like finding new authors. Went and read the first chap of one of his Amazon listing. Howled when I got to this line:

    “I was always a leg man. It was the first thing I saw when I was born. But then I was trying to get out. Ever since I have been working in the other direction and with pretty lousy luck.”

    Will check him out. Thanks!

    • Kris, I love that line and having you quote it again had me laughing so hard it brought tears to my eyes.
      The passage which had me out of control at his reading was from his novel FACTOTUM. It’s in the first third of the book and describes what happens when Bukowski is in a bar, drunk, and a woman whom he finds to be extremely unattractive takes him home with her and attempts to bed him. It works as prose to but hear him read it was a singular pleasure.

  4. His writing is like my spicy cheese sauce. I make it with habaneros, jalapenos, serranos, Korean chili peppers, and when I can get them Ghost Chilis. Its pungent aroma can call up a memory of smokey bars and cold beer to wash it down. In the mouth the fire builds in layers until it is too strong to keep down and the heat has built to pain that evokes memories of childhood beatings. The pain sticks around until it is expelled by the common methods, at which point it increases ten fold, slapping one in the face and leaving one shivering in a cold sweat as waves of loneliness pulse from a sense of “Why doesn’t anybody love me?” and “Life sucks.” Basically it burns going in and it burns going out.

    Moments later, walking back into the kitchen and opening the fridge the glass snaplock container full of the orange cheese sauce stares back. Chunks of onion and bell pepper beckon with their syren call.

    “That sure would be nice in an omelet.”

    And the eater / reader is drawn again into the delicious vortex of pain and remorse and the cool minty feeling on the tongue and in the belly that only those who’ve survived Basil’s Pain Cheese or Charlie Bukowski’s stories and returned for seconds can claim to have known.

  5. Wow, Basil. I should have just emailed you and asked you to write the blog! You did I better job than I ever could have. Beautifully described. Thanks for sharing your own love of the man’s work.

  6. Thanks for the “heads up,” Joe. So many writers. So little time. What a life this guy must have had. Here he wrote all these fine works, and when he died, he was only two years older than I am right now. And I’m still editing and pounding away on Numero Uno.

    Bukowski sound like he might have fit right in at some of our local writer’s watering holes, which I avoid for obvious reasons.

    There’s a ton of his books on Amazon Kindle at cheeep prices!!

    • Jim, his output is amazing. And yes, HarperCollins does have quite a few of his books in the Kindle sale box this month. The free samples are generously sized as well, so that one can get a feel for Bukowski’s work and decide if it’s something to pursue further, or otherwise.

      I’m with you on avoiding those watering holes, Jim. It doesn’t help.

      Keep pounding away on Numero Uno. I’ll look forward to reading it.

  7. Just a heads up. Bukowski is really raw and misogynistic. I went through a “beat” phase, and read a lot of Bukowski. His life is romanticized by his fans. There’s nothing romantic about boozing and womanizing. His poetry has an edge all right, but read it with caution.

    • Just curious: Is he truly misogynistic or, like John D. MacDonald, only anachronistic in regard to the way he writes women? I love John MacD and sometimes his women characters make me cringe. But I am sure he didn’t hate women; he wrote within a certain spirit of the times.

    • I would echo Kris’s statement in responding to your statement regarding Bukowski. From all accounts he was difficult with everyone regardless of sex, and most obviously himself. And speaking only for myself, I hardly romanticize his lifestyle, having come a hair’s breadth from falling into it myself. I simply find his brtual honesty regarding himself and the people he encountered to be extremely refreshing and his style to be unique and at the same time accessible.

    • In Post Office he describes the woman he marries as “good, solid meat.” He uses her for that, then is glad to get rid of her. That’s his view of women.

    • Yes, he does, and there are several similar statements which Bukowski makes throughout his work which one might find that are worse than the one you quote. Whether those statements are indicative of his attitude of women in general or specific women he encountered is a subject about which we’ll have to agree to disagree, anon. For myself, I don’t find that the issue, however one chooses to resolve it in their own mind, has any bearing on his worth as an author.

      There is a balanced presentation on the subject which can be found at


      for those interested in further reading on the subject.

  8. Haven’t read him yet, but definitely will now. It’s interesting to read you say that his last book was a take-down of the genre. Genre writers often eventually feel the need to develop beyond the conventions of their “niche.” What do you think his final book was trying to “say” about his attitude toward his writing, and the genre? (I realize I’m putting you in the position of playing armchair psychoanalyst, sorry about that!) 🙂

    • Kathryn, PULP is dedicated to “bad writing.” (!) Bukowski also indicated occasionally in his other books that he was not a fan of popular fiction in any medium (he worked for a few days as a packer for a comic book distributor, and talks briefly about the product in FACTOTUM). One of the characters in PULP is also named “Nicky Belane” and the plot is a bit…complex, in the hard-boiled style. I hesitate to speak with any authority about Bukowski’s attitude toward his own writing — I will leave that to the experts — but my general uninformed impression is that he thought that he was better than most but considered himself to be nowhere near as good as he wanted to be.

  9. Joe, thank you for mentioning Bukowski. There is a bookstore in Atlanta (Acapella) that used to have a large Beat section, and Bukowski was there with them, but I’m not sure he is Beat. But he is wild. We’re headed to the bookstore early next month, and I may pick one up. Great description of him and his work. I bet hearing him read was an enormous event. Thanks for sharing.
    Basil, is that going to be the ad copy when you take your sauce commercial? It’ll kill.

    • Thank you, Lance. I don’t really think of Bukowski as a “beat” writer. His work is quite distinct from Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso, et al. I think the reason that he is grouped with them is that he had a short story collection published by City Lights, which was the flagship press for the beat movement. Lawrence Ferlinghetti,the co-owner of City Lights, published the book as part of an expansion of the press’s output, which until 1972 had primarily been poetry.

      Sitting in on a reading by Bukowski was amazing. The early 1970s was a great time to be alive. I was also privileged the year before to attend a Leonard Cohen concert in Cleveland at a very intimate venue named The Smiling Dog Saloon, and to meet The Man himself in the club’s restroom afterward. But that’s another story.

    • I’m not familiar with Cohen, but a quick look on line indicates it’s a major oversight. He must have been an incredible presence in the Smiling Dog.

    • Lance, Cohen at that point was primarily known because Judy Collins had recorded his song “Suzanne.” He had recorded two albums that few people at that the time of his tour had heard and were not commercially accessible. Nonetheless, the place was packed (not hard to do) and he was amazing. I can still remember his stage banter, very low key but hilarious, and his dour delivery was in keeping with the songs.

      I was totally rocked several months ago when I heard my fifteen year old daughter singing his composition “Hallelujah” which she had found totally on her own.

    • You must have been only a feew years older when you went to Cohen’s concert. Your discovery of him must have involved a great deal more effort then than hers did today. I graduated from high school in the early 1970s, but out in the woods where Simon & Garfunkel marked some sort of frontier.

  10. Thanks, Joe. Another writer to check out.
    What a shame he couldn’t enjoy his HarperCollins success, though it did bring him a measure of immortality.

    • Elaine, he did live to see some recognition. The film “Barfly” was based on his life and sparked an expanded interest in his work. I wondered occasionally what that must have been like for him, considering what had gone before.

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