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A Novel This Full of Drunken, Gambling, Womanizing Debauchery Isn't Usually Called Literary

On the occasion of Charles Bukowski's birthday, a reposting:


They don't do it anymore but not too many years back the big Indigo bookstore at Bay and Bloor in Toronto (a store I now know well) kept certain fiction titles, certain authors' novels, behind the Special Orders desk. Authors like William S. Burroughs, Haruki Murakami and Charles Bukowski were kept back there. You had to ask the staff to even look at them. Why? Because these were the titles most often stolen off the bookshelves. This should be reason enough for readers of a certain age and/or contrarian bent to be interested. It sure worked for a twenty year-old me. Still does on some level.

Charles Bukowski was a drunk. He was a gambler. He was a womanizer, but only when he got famous enough that he could get those women to womanize with. Think the dirtiest dive of a hole-in-the-wall bar you've ever seen. That's the kind of place you'd have found Charles Bukowski in and chances are you wouldn't have liked the man, and he would have been a right prick to you, and me too.

But then Hemingway was said to be the grand egocentric, anti-semitic prick of them all and I bloody love three of his novels to a reverent degree.

Bukowski too, he was one who could tranform himself on paper. Produce a little magic. Give a little something he probably couldn't be quite as generous with in his lived life.

He got famous as a poet, as a poet who would go to reading drunk and drink while he read. He got so famous for this that audience members liked to plow him with alcohol, get him truly wasted to up the perfomitivity of his reading.

But that's not why they came to hear his stuff.

There are books about wizards and there are books about vampires. Then there are the New Yorker friendly type of books that involve adultery and a certain middle-class unhappiness. There are books we call chick lit, there are the books that Ken Follett writes where good is good and bad is evil and it's all epic and historic and very well researched. Oh there are so many kinds of books but nowhere I can think of does Charles Bukowski squarely fit, least of all in any category that would have ever won him a Booker Prize. Salman Rushdie would not have been his best mate, believe me.

The closest to Bukowski I can think of would be a William S. Burroughs type or our current dark and dirty writer, Chuck Palaniuk, though I have to admit I've yet to read him.

Bukowski is writing the truths he knows and he does it beautifully. He writes about a class of people so low they can't, as I recently heard it put, be called blue collar since they have no collars to speak of. These are the people of the sketchiest parts of L.A., where Buk, as his fans and friends referrred to the writer, grew up. These are the drunks and the gamblers. These are the sorry souls with the crappy wives and the lousy cars. They are the lowlifes of a society that prizes getting ahead in your career by making more cash, where success is measured by the size of your house.

Bukowski is speaking for a very different group of people, a people far from what many of us know, and yet a middle-class Jewish boy from Canada can still relate. He can still read and relish and eat up so much of the truths he feels are his in Bukowski's work.

With Post Office, Bukowski's first novel, that I so enjoyed on re-reading (in a single day!) this past winter break (holed up in a bachelor apartment on 42nd avenue with my wife, no TV, no internet, no toaster oven, just a bad bad flu and a good good book) we get the story of Henry Chinaski, a not remotely disguised Bukowkian alter-ego, and his various crap jobs from the US Postal Service. What makes the story is the humor, the honesty, the drudgery, the sex, the drinking, the sex, the humor and the sex. Did I mention the sex? Bukowski gets down and dirty about the world, how he sees it, how it is. Morals are thrown out the window and the flank, as he calls it, of a woman's leg is in detail described. So too are the real crappy moments in our lives - our jobs! - and the terrible mundane way they can be, or how slavishly they can get us to work against a clock and how we sweat and puke to just keep up. And how hard that is.

He writes best about being screwed as the little guy, but then finding his little dirty ways to screw back, and I mean that every which way you imagined. And in every way the screwing is satisfying to read about, titilating, bloody revenge satisfying or just eye-ball popping wtf intriguing. Bukowski was destined to self-destruct but he did it with flare and he managed to laugh about it and he managed to even get some pretty poetic pathos out of it. But the crap jobs and then getting fired or quitting and then living off what he could win at the track, and then the women, oh the women. The fucking and the drinking, the flirting and the fighting. All of it full-tile, no holds barred. That's how he lived. That's how he wrote. There is no bullshit. There certainly aren't any aphorisms to be learned.

By now you see that  Post Office is not for everyone. I have yet to encounter a book club that would embrace it or anything else by Bukowski. If, however, you've ever wanted to steal a book, or stole one, or just give a grown-up finger to the Man, Buk (here reading his poem Bluebird) is for you.

[Originally published February 2011]