Pick up a digital copy of the Paragraph Line Books original Kentucky Bestiary at Amazon.com, por favor, mis amigos. You’ll be glad you did!
The letter arrived in the afternoon mail, sandwiched between a fistful of flyers and bills. I hesitated opening it, certain I’d find another complaint about our fortune cookies. After all, the letter was written in hurried cursive with the return address blacked out. I’d seen this letter a hundred times before. The customer was upset they were dumped, even though the cookie promised a life full of happiness.
Inside the envelope, I didn’t find a complaint, but rather a 100,000 dollar check with my name on it. I strained my eyes, checking, then rechecking for some catch buried within the fine print.
Well, you did it. You got all seven numbers. I had a hell of a time tracking you down, but felt it was my obligation. Your company, Lucky Yu, told me that you wrote this particular fortune, even the lotto numbers below. I thought I should give you part of the winnings, since you made this dream come true for me.
Best of luck,
Aunt Janice didn’t see anything wrong with the letter. She read the note out loud, in her high pitch voice, emphasizing all the positives I’d missed.
“I’m so proud of you,” Aunt Janice said, hands on top of my own.
“Well, have you told your cousins about the check?” she replied.
“This is my company, too, Aunt Janice.”
She lifted her head upward, smirking, about to burst into laughter. I snatched the letter before she could start, nearly ripping the paper in the process. She pouted until I gave it back.
“You know, everyone would flip if you got a food truck,” she said.
“And what would I sell?” I asked.
“Fortune cookies, of course.”
“That’s not a real idea.”
“You know, Sean” she replied, “why do you think we’re here?”
“Like, on earth?”
“No, I mean in this crappy trailer, adjacent to the real office building? There’s a reason you know.”
I sighed with my hand rummaging through a pile of fortune cookies. Maybe deep inside the mound there was something to prove her right, an omen to confirm the letter she kept reading out loud.
After the fifth cookie, I told her she didn’t need to read the letter once more; in fact, she could burn it for all I cared.
The cookie spoke to me.
Lucky Yu says: “Success will come once your options are exercised.”
The night before our grand opening, I blindfolded Aunt Janice, then lead her toward the parking lot where the food truck was located. To my surprise, the truck was filled with rats, hundreds of them pouring out the windows, clawing at the sides to remain inside. The rats now scurried through the parking lot, nipping at anything that moved. I quickly turned around, pushing her toward the office-trailer, praying she didn’t get bit by one.
Aunt Janice kept screaming my name, blindfold now resting around her neck just like an old timey bandit. I stayed silent, pacing around the lobby, racking my brain for some explanation. I’d scrubbed the entire truck from bumper to bumper, every nook and cranny accounted for. The company, which sold me the vehicle, even included one of those cherry scented trees that hung from the rearview mirror. Certainly that would’ve stopped some of the rats dead in their stupid tracks. Rats hated cherries.
“What was all that about?” Aunt Janice said. “Where’d they come from?”
“It’s nothing,” I said. “Just give me a minute, then I’ll figure it out.”
“Nothing?” she yelled, face red with panic. “We’ve got an army of rats running around our truck and a grand opening tomorrow.”
“Shhh,” I replied, hand over her mouth. “Will you quiet down?”
I let go of her mouth, wiping the saliva onto my pant leg. She did have a point, though, even if it was slightly exaggerated. The whole project was now at a standstill. I resumed my pacing, scanning the room for any insight into the rat infestation.
On the bulletin board, next to the Luck Yu newsletter, I noticed several sample fortunes I posted this morning. As I read each of them, everything began making sense, even the rats scrounging around the parking lot. The fortunes had come true. Not just for Mr. Arbuckle, but the rats, too. I plucked one fortune off the board, then read it silently, mouthing each word.
Lucky Yu says: “Your family will multiply, covering the earth with your glory.”
Granted, that did seem a little incriminating, especially the part about someone’s kids covering the earth. I wondered how many more I wrote like that one. For all I knew, one rat wondered into the food truck, had a nibble of a cookie, then magically sprouted kids. I began fantasizing about a quick fix, some death fortune cookie that would solve this problem instantly.
Lucky Yu says: “Your family will die a short, but painful death. Your intestines will explode out of your butt, then tie into a noose, which will hang you until you are deader than a doornail.”
I began laughing while typing them up, which caused Aunt Janice to erupt.
“This isn’t a joke,” she said. “The party is less than twelve hours away, Sean.”
“Just a minute,” I replied, “and I’ll have this all taken care of.”
“What are you going to do? Spam them to death with your boring emails?”
“Huh? I thought you liked those links?” I said, head now cocked to the side. “Well, anyway, we’re going to reverse their fortune.”
She rolled her eyes before walking to the parking lot window.
In less than an hour, we’d assembled a batch of death fortunes, some even designed specifically for rats. Those were my favorite. I pictured the rats keeling over, writhing in pain just before death. We tossed the cookies into the swarming mass, making sure to spread them out evenly, so every rat would at least get a taste.
The rats began dying in waves. Some of them poofed into thin air, while others spazzed out on the concrete, blood pouring out of every orifice. A couple even smelt like burnt popcorn. Yet no mater how they died, I could hear them screaming, praying for absolution. It sounded human, if only for a moment.
I scoured the parking lot after they were gone, using a trash bag to collect the dead rats. The whole scenario, while new, felt some what familiar. Unlike my cousins, I was enrolled in fat camp as a kid, while they got to stay at the YMCA. It was my job to collect the garbage each morning, then dump the bags out back, in the bin that we shared with the YMCA. All of my cousins thought this was hilarious. They not only made fun of me, but pinched my nipples until they were purple. Just like back then, I kept filling the trash bags, attempting to block it all out. We had a whole garbage bin of dead rats at that point. I tried washing off the blood once were done, but, just my luck, it had stained both my hands. They were bright red, even in the moonlight.
Lucky Yu says: “You will be forgiven by the rats, because deep down, you are a good person.”
The rats put a damper on the festivities. I’d originally planned this big party for the launch of the food trunk, yet canceled most of the activities after the whole killing spree happened. Still, there were some things I couldn’t get rid off, no matter how much I tried. The face painter, clown, and juggler all required 24 hours notice. I didn’t want to loose my whole deposit, so I had them perform for the crowd, despite my initial hesitation.
Everything was going fine until Jerry from accounting showed up. He dug his sweaty hand into the bowl of cookies, scraping the edges, attempting to find the perfect cookie. When he went in for seconds, I almost slapped him across the hand, yet didn’t have the chance. He fell into my arms, grabbing his throat, as if he were choking. The Heimlich didn’t work, no matter how hard I squeezed. It just made him cough up blood, then spill his intestines onto the pavement. He died before the paramedics arrived.
I couldn’t watch the aftermath. The crowd got bigger, especially when the coroner showed up with his body bag. People poured out of the main office, gathering around the bloodstain, taking pictures with their cellphones, then posting them on Instagram. I sat in my office, peering out the blinds, fixated on Jerry’s closed eyes. It was amazing how that simple detail made the situation seem better. His face was peaceful now, unlike the rats, who were tossed in a trash bag, with no concern over their appearance.
I closed my blinds once Aunt Janice arrived.
“Oh, my God,” she said. “What in the hell just happened out there?”
“I dunno. One minute he was just eating a cookie, and the next thing you know, he was dead.”
“Wait. Did you say he ate a cookie?” Aunt Janice asked. “Like one of ours?”
“What did you do with the death fortunes?”
“Ah, well, I’m not too sure,” I replied. “I think they were destroyed.”
Aunt Janice straddled the chair, then grabbed my jaw, lifting it upward. She had that look in her eye, where the vessels in her retinas seemed to pop out a bit, bulging with anger.
“Think?” she yelled. “Holy shit, Sean. You just killed someone.”
“Just keep your voice down. There’s no way the coroner will rule this a fortune cookie death,” I replied. “That’s not a real thing, okay?”
“Real thing? What about the lotto guy? The rats? Now poor Jerry?”
“I dunno, Aunt Janice. I just don’t know.”
“Typical,” she replied. “How typical of you.”
Aunt Janice made me throw away all of the death fortunes, but I managed to swipe one when she wasn’t looking. Then, after she left, I said my amends under my breath, preparing for that bight white light. I chewed slowly, waiting, hoping my death would be painless, unlike Jerry and the rats. Heaven seemed close at that moment. It was as if each family member came back, circling around my body, pushing me toward the afterlife. I focused on them, determined to follow, no matter where they led me.
Lucky Yu says: “Your life will gain meaning in death. A shrine will be created inside the main office, near your cousins’ boardroom.”
Unfortunately, I woke up unaffected by the cookie, bleary-eyed, head swimming with questions. Instead of being back at home, I found myself in Jerry’s driveway, sleeping near his back door. Claw marks were ripped into the wood and my hands were bloody. It seemed as if I pawed all night, begging to be let inside. I stumbled forward toward the other entrance, which, ironically, was ajar.
When I opened the door, Hermes, Jerry’s overweight beagle, appeared in the doorway. I bent down wearing a smile, but, sure enough, he darted toward the living room, settling behind the oversized leather couch. I prayed Hermes didn’t smell the death that lingered on me. If he felt hung up on my scent, what chance would I have with the rest of the world? With future women in my life?
I searched through my pocket, attempting to find a treat, and, of course, I only had were blank fortune cookies from yesterday.
I sat there a moment. The dog looking at me, then me looking at the dog. The cookie began calling my name, begging for me to toss it underneath the couch. It would be so easy. Hermes would finish the cookie in one bite, instantly forgiving me for everything I did. Then we’d ride off into the sunset afterward, two friends, with unlimited possibilities now on the horizon. I quickly wrote a forgiveness fortune, then tossed it toward him.
He ate it in one bite.
A common complaint is that Charles Bukowski is (or was) a misogynist, a woman-hater. The band Modest Mouse had a song called Bukowski, with lyrics that ask, “Why did he have to be such an asshole? Why did he have to be such a control freak?” And while I’ve heard that the song is actually an allegory more about God and his indifference to our suffering, rather than the Skid Row laureate, it is still pretty clear that many people have a lot of issues with Bukowski and his writing.
So let’s address them, or at least allow me to provide my take on the man. I virtually worshipped him in my late teens and early twenties, but at this point I count myself neither among his greatest fans or detractors, which will hopefully give this assessment something approximating objectivity.
A while back I was watching the film Crazy Love. For those unfamiliar with it, the movie is a Belgian import, based upon Bukowski’s works, and while it is seldom-seen except by hardcore Buk fans, the author considered it far superior to the other famous adaptation of his work, Barfly. I have to agree with the author’s assessment. Barfly is skillfully directed, and Faye Dunaway is great as the “distressed Goddess” Wanda, but Mickey Rourke’s performance is too over-the-top. The film Factotum seems to suffer from the inverse problem. Matt Dillon turns in a fairly nuanced performance as Henry Chinaski, but the film is plodding, and since the very heart of the novel centers upon the wanderings of an itinerant bum classified as 4F for the Second World War, the filmmakers’ choice to jettison the period setting was an unpardonable oversight.
Crazy Love gets everything right about Bukowski and his essence, in vignettes that include everything from the pained loneliness of being an acne-scarred teen, to the story of a man who has been without a woman’s touch for so long that he secures a recently deceased corpse in the hopes of making love to it.
I only mention the film because in the DVD extras, there is an interview with the filmmaker, talking about the first time he screened the movie for Bukowski, who turned to him afterwards and remarked, “You changed my ending.” And then, after a long pause, he added “You made it better.”
This, I think, provides an uncommon insight into the writer. Here is a writer viewing an adaptation of his work, in which the director has taken certain liberties with his material, and rather than getting angry, Buk credits him with improving his story. This is not the act of an asshole, and less the whim of a control freak.
Putting that aside, though, and giving the author’s detractors the benefit of the doubt (if only for the sake of argument), I have difficulty understanding how a writer having a personal defect makes them a bad writer. To say that someone is a misogynist seems to be a moral rather than critical evaluation. Nobel Prize winner Knut Hamsun was an anti-Semite who initially sided with Adolf Hitler’s regime against British imperial interest, but he is also one of the greatest writers who ever lived; ditto for Ferdinand Celine, who didn’t much care for Jews (or pretty much anyone, including himself) but also wrote perhaps the greatest picaresque novel in history (Journey to the End of the Night). If we judge an author’s merits by their moral fiber rather than technical skill, we have to concede that an illiterate multiculturalist is a better writer than Rudyard Kipling or H.P. Lovecraft, who both held what would be considered retrograde racial views. One critic even argued that H.P. Lovecraft’s xenophobia provided the inspiration for the monsters he created, that his Anglophilic racism and revulsion were at the heart of his genius.
The real problem with trying to judge Bukowski’s level of misogyny, however, comes from the fact that there were two Bukowskis, at least by my reckoning. There was the guy who wrote for the local Los Angeles rags, whose writings were eventually collected by Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s City Lights imprint. This Bukowski was photographed constantly with a bottle in his hand, constantly self-aggrandizing (citing his three favorite authors as “Charles Bukowski, Charles Bukowski, and Charles…”), while also being meta enough to wear a Bukowski t-shirt in public.
I honestly don’t care much for this Bukowski, and neither does the man who is responsible for bringing us the other Bukowski, the real one in my estimation. John Martin, the founder of Black Sparrow Press, rescued Buk from poverty and the United States Postal Department. Together the two men published six novels, several books of short stories, and countless books of poetry (too many books of poetry in the estimation of Buk biographer, Howard Sounes, with whom I concur).
This latter Bukowski was the product of a wartime tryst in Germany, a depression-era kid whose wisdom touched on everything from war, to the lot of the common laborer, to the workings of fate and the cruelty of death, disease, and love. This is quite a different character from the hard-drinking “dirty old man.”
Was the dirty old man a character, a creation of Buk’s, much like Hunter Thompson’s Raoul Duke? I think so, but with one key difference: Bukowski was, I believe, a shy man, one whose distrust of humanity in general (and women in particular) was cultivated over the course of several decades surviving at the bottom rung of society, with very little love thrown his way, and scant attention paid to his work until he was well past the benchmark of middle-age. Thompson, by his own admission, had become something of a slave to his creation, and he often said that when he was invited to read or speak, he wasn’t sure if people wanted to see him or the pith-helmeted character with a cigarette-holder clenched in his jaws, toting guns and dropping acid.
Bukowski’s public persona (not to be confused with his alter ego, Chinaski) was a defense mechanism, I think, something designed to protect him, and thus I don’t believe it ever consumed him the way Thompson’s creation eventually trapped him. Another kind of public persona is not self-chosen, however, and in this category I think William S. Burroughs rates a mention, for just as a shorthand exists for Bukowski (drinking and fucking) or for Hunter Thompson (LSD and guns), there is a Cliff’s Notes version of Burroughs that focuses less on his writing and more on his pop cultural footprint (which includes everything from a small role in Drugstore Cowboy to being celebrated by the likes of Kurt Cobain) and his personal life (especially shooting his wife in the head during a disastrous reenactment of the William Tell routine). Burroughs was always careful to reiterate that his life was in fact boring, though, and that he spent the vast majority of it sitting in front of a typewriter.
I think the most unobstructed view of the real Bukowski (if the reader accepts my premise) comes in one of the last works published in his lifetime (or perhaps just after his death), The Captain is out to Lunch and the Sailors have taken over the Ship. It’s in this book that we really get a clear view of the man who liked the films of Akira Kurosawa, who was dubious of both the American war machine (then gearing up for the First Gulf War) as well as the ostensibly antiwar Left that avoided the charnel house of Vietnam more because of their social and financial privilege rather than their impeccable moral principles (Bukowski was always leery of the hippies, even the ones who admired him and his work).
I think a lot of his writing, especially the early novels and a lot of the posthumously published poetry, doesn’t hold up well on repeated readings. On the other hand, I have yet to encounter a coming-of-age novel that holds a candle to Ham on Rye, which I still regard as the most honest and insightful work ever written about childhood, adolescence, the process of becoming a writer, and America in general. It’s the funniest and saddest book I’ve ever read, or probably ever will read.
I also think he was a hell of a short story writer. Both South of No North and Hot Water Music contain remarkable vignettes that explore typical Bukowskian (sic) themes like love, death, and poverty, in short bursts of graceful economy that rival the works of the best practitioners in the form, from Salinger to Perotta. One of his best books, Septuagenarian Stew, features some of the most remarkable poetry and short stories he ever wrote. Buk got better with age.
For someone who could be such a shameless self-promoter, and for a man who wasn’t shy about voicing his lack of enthusiasm for a writer when the mood hit him, Bukowski also deserves a lot of credit for hipping readers to some of the world’s best writers, authors I certainly wouldn’t have discovered without his generous compliments and various homages paid. From Carson McCullers to Ivan Bunin and Knut Hamsun, I didn’t even know these writers existed, much less that they would become some of my favorites, until Hank told me about them.
He deserves the lion’s share of credit also for reintroducing the world to one of the genuinely titanic writers of the twentieth century, John Fante, that master of rendering unbridled emotion and passion on the page.
So, now that we’ve considered the man, his work, and what nuggets of autobiography he and others have disclosed in writing, the reader is entitled to ask me what my summation of Buk’s moral fiber was. Was he a misogynist, an asshole?
And though the reader is entitled to ask the question, I have to be honest and say that I don’t really feel compelled to give an answer. I don’t like a lot of Bukowski’s writing, but I like some of it, very, very much, and that’s about all I have to say about him.
Sure, you’re the smartest one in the room, but that Southern accent of yours makes you sound like an idiot. At least that’s what workers at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee heard when the lab decided to bring in a “a nationally certified speech pathologist and accent reduction trainer” to “help” them “speak with a more neutral American accent.”
“Studies have shown that whether you are from the North or South, a Southern twang pegs the speaker as comparatively dimwitted,” Scientific American helpfully tells us.
Sure, your last book sold ten copies and you’re pretty sure your next one will sell about the same… but at least you’ll get to live much longer with all that failure thanks to having a sense of purpose in your life.
In fact, people with a sense of purpose had a 15 percent lower risk of death,compared with those who said they were more or less aimless. And it didn’t seem to matter when people found their direction. It could be in their 20s, 50s or 70s… “Often this is individuals who want to produce something that is appreciated by others in written or artistic form, whether it’s music, dance or visual arts,” Hill says.
So, yes, your smug self-regard actually has a pay-off, Writer Person! Congratulations!
At the London Review of Books, Mike Kirby recalls his time in the late 1950′s and early 1960′s as an electronics technician working on nuclear warheads in the U.S. Navy and his evolution into a peacenik.
Before boot camp I had been a street kid for about a year. Boot camp meant I could take a shower and wash my clothes. Putting up your hand and taking the oath got you ten weeks in San Diego, without rights, subject to constant abuse. You’re marched here; you’re marched there. You yell yes sir and no sir and try your damndest to fit in and do everything that is demanded of you. Be clean, stand up straight, roll your socks up into balls so that the stencilled initials show in the little window.
More at the London Review of Books.