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.
A is for Antigone, the incestuous product of Oedipus and his mama Jocasta. In Sophocles’ play of the same name, Antigone is punished for burying the body of her exiled brother Polynices. Like her papa Oedipus, Antigone pushes the limits of cultural boundaries and the conflicts that duty to one’s family and the gods present to social order. Good, tragic stuff.
A is also for Alice, the heroine of not one but two Lewis Carroll classics, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. Full of logic puzzles, cryptic satire, and good old fashioned nonsense, Alice’s adventures work on a range of levels that appeal to both children and adults. She explores altered states and missing signifiers while flirting with death and madness in a surreal dreamworld. (Fans of Carroll’s twisty logic will surely delight in Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach: an Eternal Golden Braid).
B is for Bartleby the scrivener, the eponymous non-hero of my favorite Herman Melville short story. Bartleby is hired by a wealthy lawyer to copy texts, a job at which he excels. But whenever Bartleby is asked to do something other than copy letters, he always replies “I would prefer not to.” This answer incenses the other employs and bewilders the lawyer. Eventually Bartleby stops doing any task, but somehow always remains around the office, almost like a ghost. Just what exactly Bartleby is meant to symbolize is up for grabs–Melville’s text is rich with possible interpretations. Every time I read this one, I get a new perspective. Read the full text here.
B is also for Billy Budd, yet another Melville character. Maybe you read Billy Budd in high school (it made me scratch my head quite a bit my Junior year). Billy Budd is a foundling who grows into the type of man admired by all. When he joins the crew of a ship, he is lovingly called “Baby Budd” by his fellow sailors. However, when he encounters his embittered superior Claggart, his innocence is put to the test; Claggart accuses young Budd of plotting mutiny. Billy is literally struck dumb by the accusation, and he responds by striking Claggart, inadvertently killing him. For this crime he is put to death and revered as a Christ-like figure by the crew. Like the story of Bartleby, Billy Budd resists easy decoding. Simply put, this is a great novella to come back to more than once.
C is for Chinaski. Henry Chinaski was the alter-ego Charles Bukowski used to represent himself in his books. Chinaski was a macho coward, a drunken gambler who was always chasing ladies and losing jobs. Chinaski was (bizarrely) the ideal imagined self for Bukowski, full of faults and shortcomings and egotistical brutality. I recently watched the documentary Bukowski: Born into This. One memorable scene goes something like this: the filmmaker (this is in the early 70s, when the filmmaker first begins shooting the footage that becomes Born into This) follows Bukowski from L.A. to San Francisco, where he’s giving a poetry reading. Bukowski gets drunk on the plane, makes an ass of himself, is a moron at the reading, is a bumbling idiot, etc, etc. However Bukowski writes up the whole event very differently in his Open City column, “Notes of a Dirty Old Man”–he paints a picture of himself having to help this idiot camera guy out; he says the filmmaker is a lost fool. When the filmmaker runs into Bukowski, he’s upset; he says: “Don’t you realize that I have film of the whole thing? I’ve got you drunk on film, looking like a fool!” Bukowski replies: “Fuck you! When I write, I’m the hero of my shit!” So that’s Chinaski: the hero of Bukowski’s shit.
C is also for Calliope, the protagonist of Jeffrey Eugenides’ 2002 novel Middlesex. To be honest, I thought the second half of the novel was weak (in fact I thought the end was downright awful), and Eugenides’ writing was surprisingly rote, even hackneyed at times (I use the adverb “surprisingly” as I was under the impression that he was something different based on friends’ reviews of The Virgin Suicides, which I never read). Nevertheless, poor cursed Calliope is a complex and at times enthralling character to follow. No one realizes Calliope is a hermaphrodite until she (Cal is raised as a girl) turns fourteen and shit gets weird. The gender study implications are interesting here, but what I found truly fascinating about the novel was the way that Eugenides used Calliope as a muse for genetic history; the character is essentially a complex and conflicting comment on the clashing paradigms of different ages and different spaces. Boys and girls, Turks and Greeks, blacks and whites, rich and poor, hippies and squares–as the name of the novel implies, there is never a definite and simple space where identity can rest.