The Strange and Terrible Saga
What makes Portions from a Wine-Stained Notebook tower over other critical studies of Bukowski is editor Calonne’s sturdy emphasis on the author’s long-overlooked and undervalued work as an essayist.
“I wasn’t even a revolutionary,” Bukowski writes, “but I knew how a true revolutionary should think.”
The sometimes-unreliable guardians of popular culture in America would have us believe that the late John Lennon represents the apex of progressive and revolutionary thought in the turbulent tide of cultural change represented by the ‘60s. Funny what an assassin’s bullet can do to one’s standing and significance on the cultural pendulum. Lennon and the Beatles embraced (and in many ways advanced) the drug and hippie culture that flourished in the ‘60s. But Bukowski was right there in the thick of it, too, a 47-year-old man “arriving at full middle age” when the Summer of Love announced itself in 1967.
Not unlike Hunter S. Thompson, who derided the new counterculture in 1967 for lacking the political convictions of the New Left and the artistic soul that the Beats sought to instill in the fabric of American society, Bukowski looked around at the strange and terrible saga unfolding before him and recognized the great cultural shift that “the dead masses” failed to acknowledge … the American Dream had died. Only now, eight years into the new millennium, can we fully appreciate the many eulogies Bukowski wrote under the guise of his Notes of a Dirty Old Man columns for the Open City weekly and other underground and counterculture publications.
To lead the dead mass our so-called leaders have had to speak dead words and preach dead ways (and war is one of their ways) in order to be heard by dead minds. History, because it is built in this beehive fashion, has left us nothing but blood and torture and waste – even now after 2,000 years of semi-Christian culture the streets are full of drunks and poor and starving, the murderers and police and the crippled lonely, and the newly-born shoved right into the center of the remaining shit – Society. (1966)
John Updike echoed Bukowski’s sentiment in Rabbit is Rich (1981): “The world keeps ending but people too dumb to know it keep showing up as if the fun just started.”
As David Calonne points out in his introductory words, “the underground publications to which Bukowski contributed his stories and essays began to proliferate during the Sixties and it was then that his creativity detonated in multiple directions.”
Bukowski’s Notes of a Dirty Old Man column debuted in Open City weekly in May 1967 and ran for 87 weeks. The column, which expanded Bukowski’s reputation beyond Los Angeles and the small press universe, appeared variously in the L.A. Free Press, Berkeley Tribe, Nola Express, the National Underground Review, and the New York Review of Sex and Politics. Five of Bukowski’s priceless Dirty Old Man columns are collected in Portions, including the first installment offering the author’s somewhat dubious suggestions for dealing with drunk drivers, the overreaching point being a mistrust of authority and the imposition of morality upon the masses by legal instrument.
Like a mad prophet peering into the future, Bukowski railed against the credit-driven economy and the deadening effects of the nine-to-five lifestyle. Unbelievable as it may seem, Bukowski issued this chilling warning in 1970:
“At this time there are too many people afraid for their jobs, there are too many people buying cars, TV sets, homes, educations on credit. Credit and the eight hour day are great friends of the Establishment. If you must buy things, pay cash, and only buy things of value – no trinkets, no gimmicks. Everything you own must be able to fit inside one suitcase; then your mind might be free.”
Bukowski “realized that a man could work a lifetime and still remain poor”, his wages taken in mindless consumer spending that keeps the great economic beast of the free market alive and well.
Finally, in November 1969, aided by the financial assistance of John Martin of Black Sparrow Press (publisher of many of Bukowski’s now-classic novels and poetry collections), Bukowski “exited his long years of servitude at the Post Office” and opted out of the whole mess, embarking on his new life as a professional writer. From Notes on the Life on an Aged Poet (1972):
I had, since the age of 35, been writing poems and stories. I decided to die on my own battlefield. I sat down to my typewriter and I said, now I am a professional writer. Of course, it wasn’t simply that easy. When a man works for years at the same occupation, his time is another man’s time. I mean, even with an 8 hour day, that day is taken. Add travel time to and from work, plus work, plus eating, sleeping, bathing, buying clothes, automobiles, tires, batteries, paying taxes, copulating, having visitors, getting sick, having accidents, having insomnia, having to worry about laundry and theft and weather and all the other unmentionables, there ISN’T ANY TIME LEFT for the man himself. And, when overtime is called often some of these necessaries must be left out, even sleep, and, more often, copulation. What the fuck? And there are even 5 and one half day weeks, six day weeks, and on Sunday one is expected to go to church or visit the relatives, or both.
The man who said “The average man lives a life of quiet desperation”, said something partly true. But the job also soothes men, it gives them something to do. And it stops them from thinking. Men — and women — don’t like to think. For them the job is the perfect haven. They are told what to do and how to do it and when to do it. 98 percent of Americans over the age of 21 are working, walking dead. My body and my mind told me that within three months I would be one of them. I demurred.
His greatest fame lay ahead of him.
Like the equally brilliant Hunter S. Thompson, who lacked the intestinal fortitude to ride it out to the natural end, Bukowski knew that the whole goddamn ball of wax was a scheme, a hoax, life was a joke spent in service to cold machines and colder political and moral creeds that demanded a price far beyond their worth, with the ultimate punch line arriving at the end, yet he still managed to hang on for another 23 years before he was lowered into the cold, cold ground under a marker with two simple, cautionary words engraved in the stone: DON’T TRY.
The Hardest Work Imaginable
When Willy Vlautin was 20-years-old, young and impressionable, with success as a musician and novelist (The Motel Life, Northline) years ahead of him, he took a temporary job parking airplanes at the annual air show in his hometown of Reno, Nevada.
“Most of the day was spent sitting on a lawn chair, reading Bukowski books. The job lasted a week and every night when I’d get off work my cousin and I would go out and get drunk,” Vlautin tells PopMatters. “Now, we’d usually get drunk a couple of times a week but after reading Bukowski I didn’t feel guilty about drinking quite often so we went on a bender. It seemed like an easier way to get by, to just be drunk. The problem is I never saw any of the women that show up in his stories. I kept thinking they’d show up but they never did; the reality of it was, I simply got drunk and blew all my money.”
The last morning of the temp job at the air show, Vlautin recalls, he was suffering from a hangover so severe he could barely navigate the ground at his feet, let alone park an airplane.
“I was sitting in the lawn chair trying to keep it together and the sun was beating down mercilessly and right then I told myself that I couldn’t read any more Bukowski. He was a bad influence. I got off work, went back to my place, gathered up all my Bukowski books and went down to a book store and sold them, hoping that would clear up my head. A couple of weeks later, after my guilt let up, I realized that maybe I wasn’t cut out for being alright, that maybe Bukowski really did have the right idea. So I went to the used book store to buy my books back but the owner told me he had sold them the same day I brought them in.”
Vlautin’s tale, though colorful, is not unique; similar scenarios have played out in the lives of hundreds, if not thousands, of aspiring writers the world over. The demographic is usually the same: young men from troubled backgrounds and warring families, grappling with identity issues, out of control hormones, and a belief that the bottle is their best friend.
They find a kindred spirit in Bukowski but, frankly, they get the message all wrong. The sex and rampant debauchery in Bukowski’s six novels and countless short stories, the booze and broads and wicked depravity, was never meant to inspire or instruct; the author was simply meeting marketplace demands. In “Basic Training” (1991), Bukowski’s valedictory essay on the writing life for Portfolio magazine (the final chapter in Portions from a Wine-Stained Notebook), Hank writes:
Finally, after decades of small rooms, park benches, the worst of jobs, the worst of women, some of my writing began to seep through, mostly in the little magazines and the porno journals. I found the porno journals to be a great outlet: you could say anything you wanted, and the more direct, the better. Simplicity and freedom at last, between the slick photos of beaver shots.
Bukowski elaborated further in a 1993 interview with journalist and author Silvia Bizio, remarking: “The reason sex got into so much of my stories is because when I quit the post office, at the age of fifty, I had to make money. What I really wanted to do was write about something that interested me. But there were all those pornographic magazines on Melrose Avenue, and they had read my stuff in the Free Press, and they started asking me to send them something. So what I would do was write a good story, and then in the middle I had to throw in some gross act of sex … And I would throw some sex in it and keep writing the story. It was okay; I would mail the story and immediately get a three-hundred-dollar check.” (Bukowski’s fiction is well-represented in Portions by a slim handful of stories including the masterful Silver Christ of Santa Fe and The Night Nobody Believed I Was Allen Ginsberg, as well as the aforementioned Hard Without Music.)
Los Angeles Times journalist Christopher Goffard, author of the critically acclaimed novel Snitch Jacket, a darkly comic tale of human wreckage in the Southern California underworld of bikers, thieves, drug dealers, and police informants, offers his own opinion on the Bukowski lure and the allure of self-mythologizing that the author groomed like a prize poodle:
For me, all the boozing that seems central to Bukowski’s work was never the main thing – and it presents a hideous trap for every helpless manqué who thinks getting bombed will ever substitute for a fierce dedication to learning the craft. I think of Bukowski as the poet of lonely misfits and their desperation and the atmosphere that surrounds them, of people who are way past worrying about falling into the abyss: they’re there and they’re still alive and this is what it looks like.
Goffard, in a brief but pointed interview with PopMatters on the eve of the awards dinner for the Southern California Independent Booksellers Association (in which Snitch Jacket was nominated for Best Mystery Novel of the Year, sadly losing out to Joseph Wambaugh’s potboiler Hollywood Crows), sees Bukowski as a writer of dark comedy.
“He was an explorer of the absurd outer boundaries of quotidian loneliness and an indigenous L.A. despair. This is the world of sunlit desolation that shows up, over and over, in noir, though often without Bukowski’s humor or insight or ‘lived it’ advantage.”
L.A. noir novelist John Shannon’s Jack Liffey novels are peppered with Bukowski-styled random and utterly gratuitous oddities: naked men bellowing and hurling ice plant into traffic, amputees dueling with their prosthetic arms, crashed poultry trucks with burning chickens fleeing in all directions. Shannon tells PopMatters: “Since I’m working on a novel right now about the struggle between the homeless and those who are seeking to gentrify down on “The Nickel” – L.A.’s Skid Row – I return to Bukowski again and again because he knew so intimately the people who ‘live in small rooms, always behind in the rent, dreaming of the next bottle of wine.’
He had endless sympathy for the abandoned people of America and, in particular, the abandoned of Los Angeles, which he called ‘the only city in the world’ in one of his stories. When you read Bukowski, you have to allow time for the depth of his compassion for all the odd outcast people to settle within you. He was not a minor league Henry Miller as so many seem to think. He had a major league heart and was a wonderful, deeply observant poet, not just observant of the lost and lonely and tormented, but all of us.”
“A lot of people” recognized a Bukowski influence on the narrative style of Goffard’s Snitch Jacket when the book was initially released in September 2008.
“I haven’t read Bukowski religiously, but his work hit me at an impressionable time – when I was sixteen or seventeen, in particular the collection Love is a Dog from Hell,” Goffard says. “For me, he was like Kerouac and Henry Miller and Harlan Ellison, a writer who pulled back the curtain and let you watch him live and work and let you feel the sweat of an actual human being dripping onto the keyboard. These are the guys who helped demystify literature. It wasn’t written in castles in Europe by remote, unfathomable intelligences. The work was the man and the man was the work. Or so it seemed. This was long before I understood how powerfully self-perpetuating – and sometimes self-limiting – the creation of a persona can be and that in the end these writers’ greatest characters were themselves. But they gave you a creed, a stance, and they made the making of books seem holy, and this is intoxicating to a young writer.”
For Willy Vlautin, a chronicler of the underclass in his own novels, Bukowski has “always been a rough influence.”
“He puts so much romance in alcoholism and alcoholic women and bad jobs,” Vlautin says from his home outside Portland, Oregon. “Most people probably don’t think of it as romantic but in my head it is. When I read Bukowski I still end up going on some kind of bender hoping I can get to his world. He represents how I wish I could feel when I end up living like him, but unfortunately I end up living like a character in a Raymond Carver story: Depressed and beating the shit out of myself. I know Bukowski does the same but he does it with a different style. Bukowski lives at the bottom, whereas Carver is on the next floor above, losing everything, hanging by on a thread and hating himself the entire ride down. That’s more my style.”
In the end, it is perhaps best to allow Bukowski the last word from his last novel, Pulp, an L.A. noir parody written while undergoing and recovering from chemotherapy treatment for leukemia in 1993: “Most of the world was mad. And the part that wasn’t mad was angry. And the part that wasn’t mad or angry was just stupid. I had no chance. I had no choice. Just hang on and wait for the end. It was hard work. It was the hardest work imaginable.”