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Charles Bukowski (Neeli Cherkovski's Hank: The Life of Charles Bukowski)

"When I first met Neeli, he was 16 and I was Bukowski."
"Fear made me a writer, fear and lack of confidence."
"I am not primarily a poet."

    - Charles Bukowski

"A lot of people look at Bukowski superficially. They cannot understand why so many women flock to him. He has the magical appeal of a very solid person underneath lots of bluster, a father figure. Everybody's father."

    - Frances Smith

Guest Reviewer Jack Foley

Neeli Cherkovski's Hank: The Life of Charles Bukowski appeared in 1991, while Charles Bukowski was still alive. Bukowski died in 1994, at the age of seventy-three. At the urging of Steerforth Press, Cherkovski revised his biography, adding new material and tightening the book in various ways. The resultónow called Bukowski: A Lifeóis a masterful story of a complex, compelling man who was also a powerful writer.

"When I published Hank, the life of a then still living author, I felt constrained by certain conventions," writes Cherkovski. "Just how personal should I be?...This revised edition retains a history of Bukowski's coming of age as a writer, as well as providing a more expansive account of our life and times together. It is what I wanted it to be initially, an interweaving of biography and memoir."   Vol. 1[ Click to Order Neeli Cherkovski's Bukowski: A Life (soft $) ]

Cherkovski is a considerable poet, but for this book he chooses a deliberately plain style: the point is the story as it reveals itself. Quotations from Bukowski, both from his writing and from conversations with the author, are sprinkled throughout.

Henry Charles Bukowski, Jr. -- "Hank" -- was born August 16, 1920 in Andernach, Germany, though the family moved to the United States when he was quite young. At one point in his literary career, Bukowski was given the "Outsider of the Year Award." Cherkovski traces the poet's "outsider" status to early childhood, when children teased him about his German accent and called him "Heinie": "Heinie' followed him on up through the fourth grade." His parents were little comfort. Bukowski himself remarks, "I had some pretty terrible parents, and your parents are pretty much your world. That's all there is." Bukowski's father was extremely strict and frequently beat the child. A milk delivery man who was horrified by his own father's drinking -- "My father yelled, -- He drinks!" -- he was a great believer in the American work ethic, about which he frequently lectured his son. Reconstructing this "sullen and lonely" child's frame of mind, Cherkovski writes,

Could these two people really be his parents? Their voices didn't sound right. Their mouths didn't move properly. Their hands were false and awkward. Their arms were like afterthoughts to the rest of their bodies. He repeated such observations often. Far from aggravating him, they offered Hank comfort, making him feel ever more self-reliant, more able to face himself comfortably. Many things remained a mystery, but he was beginning to know himself through his rejection of others.

Vol. 1[ Click to Order Bukowski's The Roominghouse Madrigals: Early Selected Poems, 1946-1966 (soft $) ]    "Knowing himself through his rejection of others" remained an important element in Bukowski's mental make-up throughout his life. An intense sense of his own superiority resonates throughout the poet's work -- and is in fact one of his primary themes. "Most people did fall short of his expectations," Cherkovski remarks. "Irony, silence, and sarcasm were three weapons he put to good use." Bukowski himself says, "There was nothing wrong with me. It was other people who fell short, who didn't have true humanity." He began drinking -- a lifelong habit -- in 1937, "during the last semester of the school year."

Another problem which alienated the young man, Cherkovski writes, was what one doctor called "the worst case of acne vulgaris he had ever seen." "Hank often stood before the bathroom mirror, imagining how he must look to others. I felt as if no woman would ever want to be with me. I saw myself as some kind of freak.'"

Like other troubled adolescents, Bukowski took refuge in books. The local library provided him with "the only heaven I had ever felt." "The books he read taught him that he had not given in to the norms of society," Cherkovski remarks, "and was not diminished by his father's cruelty...An inner revolt had taken hold of him, ideas that would later surface in his writing, about how the entire structure of society was populated by smooth-talking phonies...he knew that his isolation would become his strenth...he envisioned himself as the singular self,' forging his own destiny."

If that sounds a bit like William Ernest Henley, one hastens to add that Bukowski's "singular self" was considerably chastened by suffering, poverty, and failure. Dreaming of becoming a famous writer, he wrote a great quantity of stories -- mostly fantasies -- and "amassed a huge collection of rejection slips." Despite the acceptance of one of his pieces in Storymagazine, he became discouraged and wrote little. "He had suicidal thoughts quite often," Cherkovski tells us, "and continually got into fights." Indeed, suicide and self-destruction become major themes of Bukowski's work: he referred to himself as "the suicide kid."

In 1946 he met a woman with whom he would be involved for nearly a decade: Jane Cooney Baker. Their relationship is the subject of the film, Barfly, and Bukowski says this about her in his novel, Women: "I had been in love only once. She had died of acute alcoholism. She died at 48 when I was 38." It was during their turbulent relationship -- she drank even more than he did -- that he began to write the poetry which was to make him famous during the 1960's.   Vol. 1[ Click to Order Bukowski's Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame (1983 - soft $) ]

Bukowski's first book of poetry, Flower, Fist and Bestial Wail -- his titles are always excellent, though he relied on others to edit and shape his books -- appeared at the very beginning of the decade, in 1960. Profiting by the "Mimeo Revolution" of the 60's, Bukowski found his work appearing in all sorts of underground magazines -- the "littles," he called them. One publisher, R. R. Cuscaden, wrote that his own aim was "to find a legitimate response to the Corso/Ginsberg/Ferlinghetti syndrome (and imitators) on one side and the tea- cozy POETRY mag gang on the other side. Buk obviously was the answer."

It was during this period that Bukowski discovered that he had, in addition to talent, a real capacity for self-promotion. With help from his editors, the "Bukowski myth" of the hard- drinking, wild man of literature -- the underground man -- began to emerge. This is the kind of myth -- the poet as entertaining suicide -- that Americans are always willing to accept, and Bukowski's name began to be widely known. With Bukowski, as with some of the Beats, poetry began to seem not only "moving" but dangerous. "We were a fairly tough crew," he wrote, "American poetry needed a good going over...Call me a hardhead if you wish, uncultured, drunken, whatever...come here to [the magazine] Ole where you have to squint at what you read and laugh because we can't spell or punctuate."

From 1958 to January 2, 1970 Bukowski was a postal worker. He hated the job, and the day after he quit he began his novel, Post Office. The book was finished in nineteen days and quickly became a best-seller. Cherkovski writes, "The novel became a high-water mark not only for the author but for his publisher as well...The edition of two thousand paperback copies quickly sold out, prompting a new printing and eventually the sale of more than forty thousand copies." More books of prose and poetry followed, as did translations and an international readership.

Cherkovski writes that "Hank never knuckled under to his father's belief system, in which a person must achieve material wealth in order to succeed." One of Bukowski's fellow postal workers, an aspiring writer, is described as having "the kind of attitude toward writing that Hank did his best to avoid: he wanted money."

But Bukowski is a complicated and in some ways contradictory man. He understood that it was only through prose that he could make enough money to liberate himself from the post office. "Not with poetry," he tells a friend who encourages him to support himself with his writing: "It has to be prose." Later, when he is making a fair sum from his books and readings, Bukowski delights in it ("You have no right! Only I should have a BMW...I paid cash. It's top of the line."). Similarly, Cherkovski describes an incident at L.A. City College when the young Bukowski "pretended sympathy for Nazism purely to stir things up on a campus where most of the other students were espousing a patriotic, anti-Nazi line." But one wonders: Did Bukowski's Germanness move him at least a little in the direction of the Nazis? Later in the book, when Cherkovski fails to make an appointment, the unforgiving Bukowski says, "Listen. You're Jewish, right? We Christians have a lot of shopping and tree buying and tree decorating and gift wrapping to do. So let's just forget the whole thing." Cherkovski tries to apologize but Bukowski "had already hung up the phone." How much of that "pretended sympathy" for the Nazis is in Bukowski's "We Christians"? -- though one should add that many of the poet's strongest friends and supporters were, like Cherkovski, Jews.

One can also ask what sort of "outsider" this "outsider of the year" was. For an "outsider," Bukowski was awfully popular with "the mob" -- the very people he disdained. In what way was Bukowski "anti-Establishment"? This is a more complicated question than it seems to be. For many reasons which I can't go into here -- and which perhaps have something to do with our revolutionary past -- in the United States, being "against" the Establishment is precisely our mode of being in the Establishment. American heroes who are solidly on the side of the Establishment, of Law and Order, etc., are frequently represented as "outsiders" of some sort: John Wayne in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. An important myth of the American Establishment is that everyone in it is an "individual" -- that is, some sort of "outsider." If we make a film about a policeman, he must be a "rogue" policeman, a "dirty Harry." All the same, this "rogue" policeman is finally on the side of law and order and never does anything "really bad."

No one would deny Charles Bukowski's poverty and suffering and the ravages his drinking caused him. He was in a way a "wild man." But, at the same time, he was the kind of wild man who never does anything really bad. Partly because of his identification with the working class, Bukowski is very careful to keep his poetry "accessible," available to everyone. But isn't that at some odds with his outsider status? Do outsiders make their work accessible, available to everyone? Lines like these, by Larry Eigner, point to an "outsider" consciousness which goes far beyond anything ever achieved by Charles Bukowski:

                                  out in the wind
             space   But a rainbow?

                                 What is a bursting color?

      The edge in the room
      and it was wild from
      place to place

close to the sun 

In saying this, I don't want to deny Bukowski his genuine triumphs and his genuine strengths. I have a tape from the late 1960's in which he is reading his poetry. The reading is private, for friends -- it was only later that he began to read his poetry publicly, and the effect then was quite different. On my tape he sounds like a man from the end of the world; all his isolation and all his suffering (not to mention his fear, his sadomasochism, his self- loathing) are there in his voice.     Vol. 1[ Click to Order Bukowski's Betting on the Muse: Poems & Stories (1996 - soft $) ]

Charles Bukowski undoubtedly wrote too much, and some of what he wrote is slight. But if there was some fakery, there was also genuine pain. And there were always wonderful poems like this:

the mockingbird

the mockingbird had been following the cat
all summer
mocking mocking mocking
teasing and cocksure;
the cat crawled under rockers on porches
tail flashing
and said something angry to the mockingbird
which I didn't understand.

yesterday the cat walked calmly up the driveway
with the mockingbird alive in its mouth,
wings fanned, beautiful wings fanned and flopping,
feathers parted like a woman's legs,
and the bird was no longer mocking,
it was asking, it was praying
but the cat
striding down through centuries
would not listen.

I saw it crawl under a yellow car
with the bird
to bargain it to another place.

summer was over.

Bukowski: A Life tells it all.

Jack Foley's reviews appear weekly in The Alsop Review

Links of Interest:

Charles Bukowski
This site uses recordings and Bukowski's art to highlight biographical details and publication lists.

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