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." [ 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.
[ 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
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. [ 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
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. [ 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 had been following the cat
mocking mocking mocking
teasing and cocksure;
the cat crawled under rockers on porches
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:
This site uses recordings and Bukowski's art to highlight biographical details and publication lists.