“The nine-to-five is one of the greatest atrocities sprung upon mankind. You give your life away to a function that doesn't interest you. This situation so repelled me that I was driven to drink, starvation, and mad females, simply as an alternative.”
– Charles Bukowski
I always knew I was going to be a writer. Not a great one, maybe not even a good one, but I was going to do it anyway. I liked the thought of it. I liked the idea of having nothing pressing but those long nights slaving over a typewriter. I liked the image of being wheeled out at bohemian parties and plied with drink and drugs to help loosen my wit. I liked the idea of travelling round the world on someone else’s expense account to find creative inspiration for another bestseller. So, I let my imagination run riot not only on the page but in my life and I committed to being a writer.
The reality was different to how I imagined it. It was bland, three sentence long rejection letters that my mailbox bulged with, not invites to orgies. There was no call for my fiction so I had to turn my hand to the lesser form of writing we know as journalism. The worst part was there was no money… Days spent eating stale bread and the contents of tins with no labels, sleeping on friends couches after another eviction, a few bottles of cheap white cider on weekends before hitting the town to look through windows at better people.
I was inspired to be a writer by many but there was only one that made me stick it out and that was the man they simply called Hank. He too had worked the shit-eating jobs that eroded a man’s soul and made him want to kill. He too had lived in a run down apartment in a shit neighbourhood. He too had somehow been ignored by the literary world despite his obvious talents and on there on the page for everyone who cared to understand was the way to anaesthetise yourself – wine, women and keep writing. Following that formula and little else he somehow made it.
The writing of Charles Bukowski has been not only a constant inspiration but also a comfort. Even though I came late to his particular party it immediately resonated within me. The downbeat honesty about the ugly dioramas that make up human existence struck a chord, the tales of ordinary madness that no one else spoke of. He was a real human first, flawed and fractured and he just happened to write. His life itself was a reason for belief – his first novel wasn’t published until he was 49 and only then when he declared "I have one of two choices – stay in the post office and go crazy ... or stay out here and play at writer and starve. I have decided to starve." No decision for one person to go hungry has had a larger cultural significance with maybe the exception of Gandhi.
His later work is tinged with a genuine sadness. Not because of the nature of his death or his constant exploration of his many regrets but simply because that he was truly happier before he made it
His impact on individual readers will always be profound. It’s like peering through a murky window into that part of the brain where you choke the repressed memories to death and stack their corpses. He’s no dirty secret of course… He’s been immortalised on screen, paid tribute to by the stars and his old grotty apartment was listed as a “Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument”. He’s now a feature in pop culture and has many imitators, which is understandable. He made being ordinary, being a deadbeat, seem so seductive.
He stands as one of the unlikely greats of modern literature. Despite being a unashamed souse the booze never dulled his focus, nor took away his ability to get precisely to the point in his trademark stark sentences. When fame came he revelled in it but he never changed and it never changed him. He would still wake and go and drink a six pack of beer alone before starting his day in earnest. He welcomed the women but knew what they were after. With each disappointment came a slew of work. Despite the fact that he ran 300 hangovers a year he was prolific, disciplined and dedicated to his craft.
He never had to exaggerate on the page either, letting others deal with creating his mythology. Other writers were always keen to stress the term semi-autobiographical, with Bukowski the term seemed like knowing sarcasm. The protagonist of the bulk of his work, Henry Chinaski, was the same as the man. The alter-ego seemed an afterthought, some consideration for the guilty and innocent alike that struck him as pertinent in a rare moment of drunken empathy. He never really needed any other material than his life.
Which is why he’ll always be the best. No other writer lived their life the way they presented it on the page. All the other descended into parody, garish caricatures of who they were when they were vibrant and essential reading. Hunter S. Thompson lived his life to the extreme to such a degree the fiction he laced in his reporting had bled out of the pages like cheap ink. Burroughs continued to experiment to the point where his work was critically lauded but largely unread. Hemingway feared not being able to cut the mustard to such a degree that in one last final act of machismo he blew his own brains out.
Bukowski’s writing did change as his life did but where other writers tried to disguise their aging and ignore the march of time, Bukowski unabashedly wrote about that. It was all he knew how to do, to be raw and honest on the page. In his poem “Cancer”, written shortly before he died of leukaemia, the words are as painful to read as they must have been to write.
“half-past nowhere / alone / in the crumbling / tower of myself / stumbling in this the / darkest / hour / the last gamble has been / lost”.
He was never afraid to present himself as vulnerable. It typified his work. It made him relatable, for me at least.
His later work is tinged with a genuine sadness. Not because of the nature of his death or his constant exploration of his many regrets but simply because that he was truly happier before he made it. He believed his work was better back then. That in itself is something I like to believe, that the struggle to achieve the goal is the best part, that if you succeed you are somehow cursed. As someone who’s not there and never likely to be how wonderful of him to leave that legacy, regardless of whether or not it was true.
For that much I am thankful. I have no reason to doubt him now or ever. Every word he ever committed to paper was true, even the stuff that wasn’t. Anyone unfortunate enough to be reading my words having not read his must rectify that immediately. You’ll like him. He’s just like you and me. Only talented.
Here’s to the departed patron saint of barflies.
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