Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Sun Jun 06, 2004 5:38 pm 
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Deadbeat as cult writer

For those of us who haven’t read any of his writing, Charles Bukowski, as seen in this informative, engaging new documentary by John Dullaghan, emerges as a craggy deadbeat everyman, a working class L.A. writer with enough cult status to have some cool famous fan admirers. Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Harry Dean Stanton, Tom Waits, Bono of U2, and Sean Penn are the main guys who read lines or speak in admiring and affectionate terms of Bukowski for the film.. He also had a string of women, some wives, the last one, Linda Lee, a beautiful, classy lady with a tough and tender edge worthy of Lauren Bacall. More important yet for his reputation, he had an editor and publisher who put him on a monthly salary and brought out a lot of his books. This was John Martin of Black Sparrow Press, who sees Bukowski as an updated Whitman, a man of the people spewing wild poetry.

Somebody else told me he was the kind of writer you like if you’re young and wild and drink a lot, the kind of tortured outsider persona that appeals to a 22-year-old, but that you wouldn’t go back to. If you used to hit the sauce and gave it up you may feel Bukowski’s prose has lost its flavor, like a doper’s stoned insights when the high wears off. There are those who consider the writer a case of arrested development. Be that as it may, all his life Bukowski never wanted to be anything but a writer and never stopped writing, poems, then stories, finally novels. Two of his books most often mentioned are Post Office and Ham on Rye.

These may be young men's books with more rough flavor than depth of thought, but the fascination, for the young man, is with something solid: the hard nuggets of brutal boring existence, the courage of the loser who’s seen it all and bravely slogs on. First there’s the six years, age six to twelve, of being beaten severely once a week with a razor strop by his ex-soldier father. An experience like that, Bukowski says, is good for a writer because it teaches you to tell the truth. Next he had ulcerative acne vulgaris as an adolescent and his face was covered with pullulating boils that left his face craggy and pitted for life -- though there are angles in some of the varied films from different decades that show him tanned and sunny, almost elegant-looking and possessed of an evident macho sexiness that explains in part the many women in his life. The other part of the explanation is that he was a late bloomer as a ladies’ man and took advantage of the fame of his later years to make up for lost time.

After the beatings and the acne the young Bukowski started visiting Skid Row to prepare for his future life. As his second decade wore on he wandered round the country staying at flophouses, rooming houses and cheap hotels, drunk, obviously, most of the time, throughout the Forties, excused by a psychiatrist from wartime military service. In the Fifties he settled into a minimal working stiff existence: employee at the post office, delivering mail (“living hell”); later on sorting it all night (which was so monotonous he’d get so he couldn’t lift his arm), and, because he couldn’t sleep, spending the day drinking and writing. Then, when a new addiction to gambling kicked in, he’d be at the racetrack playing the horses and play barfly in the afternoons brawling and flirting. He trashes the Barbet Schroeder movie from his screenplay about that part of his life, says Mickey Rourke is too theatrical and flowery; and he wrote a book called Hollywood after the filmmaking experience to show the dream factory was even stupider and faker than he’d ever imagined.

Eventually a regular column he wrote in an L.A. weekly got Bukowski wider recognition. Then John Martin stepped in with his financial and moral support and through the Seventies and Eighties the man’s reputation and financial success grew to the point where he moved to a nice house in San Pedro with his lovely wife. He wasn’t expected to live after developing severe bleeding ulcers in his thirties (1956) but he recovered and had a new burst of creativity. In his last few years he got tuberculosis, lost 60 pounds, and gave up heavy drinking. He died soon after being diagnosed with leukemia, at 73.

Watching this documentary you feel good because of the man’s clarity and humor. Simplistic his expression may be, but it has the brilliant directness of the practiced writer who wears no mask. But despite all the tastes of his writing he and his celebrity admirers provide, I still don’t know that I’d want to delve into his prolific oeuvre, and the picture of a similar, but sober, figure named Harvey Pekar in American Splendor (Bukowski too was wildly re-imagined by R. Crumb) seems more complex and multilayered, while no less down to earth. It’s no secret that Harry Dean, Bono, Sean, and Mr. Waits are enthusiastic boozers themselves, and that’s one big reason why “Hank” Bukowski’s their bard and patron saint.

And if you compare Bukowski to another heavy user (but a more wildly adventurous one), William Burroughs, his mind and work don’t seem as rich or as interesting as Burroughs’, nor his life as intensely engaged with the issues of his times as the Beats’. Nevertheless, that’s not to impugn the authenticity of his voice. There’s nobody quite like Bukowski; hence, no doubt, his cult status, and the way people from other countries, places where the brawling and the articulate life are less often combined, find him so fascinating – and so accessible.

©Chris Knipp. Blog:

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