Bukowski, the Skid
Row Hero Who Did Try
Charles Bukowski would’ve been 95 today. But it’s doubtful he’d have like it. In fact, the writer who reluctantly embodied the outsider, hardly ever noticed by the literati world, spent his life as if he didn’t give a damn about much. But he actually did.
‘I have met more men in jail with style than men out of jail,’ wrote the on and off postal worker and regular menial job specialist, who had bouts with the FBI and the draft board, and developed a not quite accurate reputation as a drinker.
Heinrich Karl, who was born in Germany and moved to the U.S. in 1923, could’ve fooled anyone as just another destitute drunk, who didn’t belong anywhere or cared about having a career. On the outside, he seemed content with a bottle of cheap wine and a whore or two.
But despite his epitaph – Don’t Try, in a reference to advice he once gave to young writers – and fortunately to us, he did care enough to create a vigorous body of work, existential, visceral and deeply American, just as one of his heroes Henry Miller had done.
50 years ago this Aug. 22, Miller wrote Bukowski, ‘I hope you’re not drinking yourself to death,’ echoing concerns shared by his handful of friends and former lovers. He needn’t to worry that much: Bukowski died of Leukemia in 1994. He’d been sober for several years.
But there’s no misreading about his characters, a sore collection of cynical barflies, dirty hotel room dwellers, despised by anyone who loved them. Consumed by self-loath, they longed for (more)
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the sort of redemption that Bukowski achieved himself but only through literature.
It was great that he did achieve it, though, even if only in the final decades of his life. Without becoming a wealthy artist, recognition of his talents granted him a few years of uncomfortable basking in the spotlight, public readings full of hysterical supporters and even some personal space.
His notoriety as a firecracker, however, will always supersede the private man, who hated the adulation and hadn’t quite made peace with himself, or his body. Painful illnesses were constant companions, and quitting drinking and smoking didn’t really make a difference.
But so what? Unlike most of us, he put his physical and psychic pain to work and it finally paid off, at least for a brief time. We won’t dwell on his love life here, for its probably as complicated as his relationship with fame. But it’s suffice to say, the man loved.
Some kids here and there, a few ex-‘wives,’ who he may’ve married or not, and at least one brilliant adaptation of his work for the screen, Marco Ferreri’s Tales of Ordinary Madness. The late Ben Gazzara as Charlie opens the movie with the full poem on style, quoted above.
Bukowski’s birthday is being marked by several events around the world, just as the death of another master of style, Elvis Presley, is also being remembered today. Indeed, the author of Love Is a Dog From Hell fits in nicely, along many other American cultural icons, born and dead in August. Here’s to you, Hank. So glad you’ve tried.