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.
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