Why do I continue to read Charles Bukowski? He only ever writes about drinking, horse races, women, writing, reading, the post office, and fighting. I picked up the recently released More Notes of a Dirty Old Man and it confirmed that Bukowski is an artist who tells the truth, regardless of how it reiterates or damages his legend.
Bukowski’s world is skid row, working crap jobs and drinking. He is the man that society walks past and looks down on. And yes he is sometimes a horrible human being. He creeps on women. He is a drunk who vomits everyday. He is always broke. He is always fighting with his woman (and they are ever-rotating). He cannot win a bar brawl. Although the majority of his life is spent drinking or chasing a drink, he notices nuances that no one else does. There is a quiet elegance and honesty in his writing:
The woman made a bacon and egg sandwich. I laid in bed and read the L.A. Times and then I knew I was back. There were ten or fifteen letters. I read them. Everybody was lonely. Everybody was in agony. I threw the letters on the floor and in ten minutes I was asleep at 2 in the afternoon. Outside the cats played, the butterflies flew, the sun kept working. The party was over. Charles Bukowski was Hank again. Rent was needed. Food. Gasoline. Luck. CRUCIFIX IN A DEATHAND. Finished. (Bukowski, 38)
His confessionalist writing chronicles his career as a poet and his celebrity status. He acknowledges the myth surrounding him and reveals the contradictory truth. Fans, intellectuals, and friends know when they visit Bukowski, they bring a sixpack of beer. People expect him to get drunk and yell at them. They interview him when they already know the answers to the questions. Everyone wants to understand him better and hopes that there is more to him. They want to be the one he confesses something different to. Women read his writing, they know he is a drunk, and yet they try to change him. Everyone is drawn to the legend but cannot face the reality of Bukowski.
Writing for himself, Bukowski is not concerned about myth or posterity, only the present and living a life of honesty. He admits to altering what happened for the benefit of art, “Sometimes when I’m talking I improve on things to make them better. Some people might call it lying; I call it an art-form.” (54) He embellishes on reality but doesn’t change what happened; he exaggerates to make for a better story. He is always conscious of the narrative. Very often in his chronicles, someone will say, “Now you’ll have something to write about,” and he agrees (95).
Bukowski is an artist without any pretension. He never refrains from the truth, even when it contradicts his identity. The best piece in More Notes of a Dirty Old Man is when he goes to Utah to get away from society and write in the wilderness but he gets lost and panics:
I was the man who had once wanted isolation; I was the man who had once fattened on isolation. Now I had it: mountains and trees and brush; nobody around . . . I felt very foolish, for how can one get lost near a picnic grounds with signs around that say NO SMOKING and PLEASE PUT OUT ALL FIRES? (84, 89).
The art of Bukowski is his authenticity. He gives us the piss-soaked, shit-stained, vomit-filled reality. It’s ugly and depressing and sometimes you want to turn your head away. He won’t let you ignore the perverted truth; he makes you see and experience the world as he does.
Charles Bukowski, More Notes of a Dirty Old Man: The Uncollected Columns. ed by David Stephen Calonne. City Lights: San Francisco, 2011.