Charles Bukowski would be 92 if he was still alive, which he isn’t because he died in 1994.
I first read Bukowski in 1994 or 1995.
I can’t remember how I had heard about him, exactly—he might have been on MTV actually (MTV used to promote writers, believe it or not. Writers used to be cool). The Boo Radleys called a song on their 1995 album Wake Up! “Charles Bukowski Is Dead,” and I know I’d read Bukowski by the time I heard the record. I don’t know. In all likelihood, I first read Bukowski by browsing his books at the local Barnes & Noble.
I do know that I “borrowed” three beautiful Black Sparrow Press editions of Bukowski from a kid in high school journalism class. I do know that I never returned those books, and they’re still on a shelf with probably five or six other Bukowski volumes. I feel sort of bad about stealing them.
One of those books was/is Women, a rambling riff-novel about Bukowski’s fatter years as a poet of some renown, of some notoriety. I’ve probably read Women in full five times through. It’s hilarious, occasionally silly and hamfisted, and glorious in parts.
I read a lot of Bukowski in high school. A lot. My friends read Bukowski. We all read him, even his poetry. I remember the excitement a friend and I felt when we saw a quick shot of his novel Hollywood in the film Swingers. I don’t know why.
And then I kind of dropped Bukowski. This was when I was a junior or senior in college. I had seen the limitations of his prose, the brutality of his fiction, the sheer sloppiness of it all, the anger, the misogyny—I was aware of these things from the get-go, to be clear—but I became overly concerned with his status as not one of the greats, or as a popular writer, or as a writer from a macho-age better left behind.
But I never traded in my Bukowskis, or put them away. I kept them on the shelf. I go to them every now and then—not for nourishment, but for what? I don’t know. The work is admittedly spotty—a weird brand of self-deprecation and self-mythology. Henry Chinaski. Hank. Bukowski the autodidact, hunched in an LA library, reading his Shakespeare, his Celine. Bukowski the impoverished drunk. Ugly Bukowski. Romantic Bukowski.
There’s no point to this riff, of course. I was in a faculty meeting all morning and I thought about Bukowski on his birthday. What I mean to say is that Bukowski is a writer I read so thoroughly and so intensely when I was at such a young age that I feel that I know him, or at least know the version of himself that he willed to be let known. But of course I don’t know him.
“Carson McCullers,” a poem by Charles Bukowski—
she died of alcoholism
wrapped in a blanket
on a deck chair
on an ocean
all her books of
all her books about
of loveless love
were all that was left
as the strolling vacationer
discovered her body
notified the captain
and she was quickly dispatched
to somewhere else
on the ship
she had written it
I don’t know the name of this comic strip by Nathan Gelgud. Barfly was kind of terrible. This is a good story though–
Summer lovin': have a blast. You don’t have to read harlequin schlock to get romantically fulfilled on the beach this year.
Why not start with an overlooked, under-read classic from American Renaissance master Nathaniel Hawthorne. The Blithedale Romance is a fictionalized account of Hawthorne’s time on Brooke Farm–here called Blithedale–an attempt at a utopian commune founded by artists and free-thinkers. Free lovin’, amorous passions, and, uh, farming. Great stuff–and romance is right in the title.
For lighter yet still substantial fare, check out Lara Vapnyar’s Broccoli and Other Tales of Food and Love, a delicious collection of snack-sized short stories (please, please, please forgive this awful extended metaphor). Sly, smart, and occasionally sexy, Vapnyar’s tales of dislocated immigrants continue to linger on the palate long after they’ve been digested (sorry!). The recipe section at the end is the sweetest dessert (ok, I swear I’m done now).
If you like your love stories rougher around the edges, check out Charles Bukowski’s only masterpiece, Women. This rambling novel follows alter-ego Henry Chinaski’s late-in-life successful turn with the ladies. Ugly, unforgiving, honest, and hilarious, Women is one of my favorite books. Also, unlike Henry Miller’s Tropic books, you’ll actually finish this one.
We finally read Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre last summer, and believe it or not, the book is pretty great. Truly a romantic classic, but also a fine comment on gender, class, and social mores in general. And if you like it, check out Jean Rhys’s Wide Sargasso Sea, which tackles the back-story of a certain crazy lady in the attic who didn’t exactly get a voice in Jane Eyre.
Finally, if you want to get very specific, don’t hesitate to search the Romantic Circles website. Plenty of resources and lots of electronic texts: your source for all things Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, and more. Good stuff.