Monday, September 6, 2010


I moved to New York in 1984 and lived in a room at the Washington-Jefferson Hotel on 51st Street near 8th Avenue. I spent a lot of time at the Coliseum Bookstore on 57th and Broadway. This is where I discovered the books of Charles Bukowski.

His work is mostly set in Los Angeles where he grew up and lived most of his life. Bukowski's writing covers the ordinary lives of the poor, the working class, the down and out, and the oppression and drudgery of work. He inserted his alter-ego and anti-hero Henry Chinaski into his autobiographical fiction and documented his struggle to be a writer through conflicted relationships with women, heavy drinking, gambling on horses, and the constant struggle for money. He writes in a clear, paired down style and was influenced by Hemingway and John Fante.

My favorite novel by Bukowski is Ham On Rye. It tells the coming-of-age story of Henry Chinaski in Los Angeles during the Great Depression. Bukowski does not idealize LA., but instead reveals the mundane unglamorous underbelly of living in Hollywood. The novel covers childhood to young adulthood and ends with a major American historical event. 

Bukowski was an outsider since youth as he was socially inept, withdrawn, and had a severe case of acne. He also had a bad and violent relationship with his father. Ham on Rye covers this and his struggles with the forces around him that try to make him conform. Chinaski is nasty at times, but the world around him is even more repulsive. He becomes a sarcastic loner and resorts to cultivating a tough guy image and using alcohol to deal with the world. It all sounds grim, but there is an element of humor that exists in all of Bukowski's work.

Bukowski's first writings were short stories and some were published in literary journals in the 1940s when he was in his 20s. He went through a period where he travelled around, working dead end jobs, and living in cheap rooming houses. In the early 50s after returning to LA, he started working with the post office which he would continue to do until 1969.

In 1955, he was hospitalized with a bleeding ulcer that was nearly fatal and when he was released he started writing poetry and made more of a commitment to his writing even though he still had to work a regular job.

In 1967, he started writing a column called Notes of A Dirty Old Man for the underground newspaper Open City and eventually it was picked up by the LA Free Press. He also published poetry chapbooks with The Outsider a literary magazine, that was run by Jon and Louise Webb who are acknowledged as giants of the post-war small-press movement. He was starting to get noticed and develop a following.

In 1969, John Martin the publisher of Black Sparrow Press got Bukowski to quit his job at the post office by offering him $100 a month for life. Bukowski accepted and almost all of his subsequent work was published by Black Sparrow.

The first book of poetry published by Black Sparrow was The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over The Hills. There would be many volumes to come including Burning In Water, Drowning In Flame ( which is where the name of this blog comes from) which collected earlier poetry from the 60s into a single volume. Other titles included Love Is A Dog From Hell and the final volume of poetry published before his death that some consider his best, The Last Night On Earth Poems. After his death, Black Sparrow continued to publish several volumes including What Matters Most Is How Well You Walk Through Fire. 

South of No North was a short story collection that included his earlier stories Confessions of A Man Insane Enough To Live With Beasts and All the Assholes In The World and Mine. Hot Water Music is a collection of later stories.

Bukowski wrote six novels. Post Office chronicled the trials and tribulations of working as a mail carrier and clerk and was written in about a month soon after his Black Sparrow deal. Factotum documented the period when he travelled around doing shit jobs and living in rooming houses. Women was written after he had some success and documents the many relationships that occur for the now famous writer. Ham and Rye covers his childhood until early adulthood. The other two also written after he has become known are Hollywood which is based on the making of the movie Barfly and Pulp his final work is a comic approach to his coming death.

He also collaborated with the artist Robert Crumb on a few books including Bring Me Your Love and The Captain Is Out To Lunch and The Sailors Have Taken Over The Ship. Bukowksi also produced his own paintings of a outsider childlike quality.

City LIghts also published some of his work including Notes of A Dirty Old Man, and Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions, and General Tales of Ordinary Madness, and Shakespeare Never Did This. Recently, they put out a couple of volumes of unpublished stories, reviews, and essays titled Portions From A Wine-Stained Notebook and Absence of the Hero.

There were also films made based on his work inlcuding Barfly with Mickey Rourke and Factotum with Matt Dillon. My favorite was Tales of Ordinary Madness starring Ben Gazzara.

There is also an excellent documentary called Born Into This that documents the life of Bukowski. It covers his whole life , his evolution as a writer, the main women in his life, and it does not idolize him, but shows he could be more sensitve than thought, but could be a bastard as well. 

The text on the Hostage CD sums it up best. Bukowski became the prophet of the underemployed, those students of the 70s who didn't take MBAs but became educated factory workers and technicians. The security guard who works out chess problems in his spare time, the computer programmer who can whistle Beethoven, the assembly-line worker who writes poetry nightly - all are fans who adapt Bukowski's pose of low-brow sophistication as one defense against the meaningless of mindless labor.

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