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.