The Bukowski Myth

Someone had to kick the Mickey Mouse out of our heads.
–William Packard of
NYQ on Charles Bukowski

That’s a good quote, but I hate Bukowski.  And it’s not even for his poetry, which is mostly garbage, littered with gems.  Or his novels, which I mostly haven’t read.

I woke up at 6:30 a.m. this morning, thinking it was 10 a.m.  That’s three hours sleep for me.  Too tired to do much else at first, I thought I’d watch a documentary, and I came upon Born Into This, the 2003 biography by John Dullaghan.  It just confirmed everything I already thought about the man.

Bukowski was a self-absorbed, self-aggrandizing, degenerate drunk.  Sexist and probably racist.  There’s a dirty old man at the end of every dive bar in America with just as much insight on the human condition as him.  But the worst part is, Bukowski was also a hypocrite.  He’s held up by his fans as some messiah of truth — he gets down in the dirt, doesn’t have time for metaphor, “cuts straight to the marrow of the bone,” as Bono of U2 says in the film.  But the real truth is, Bukowski is as phony as someone who’d change his name to Bono.  More phony, even — at least with Bono there’s always a layer where we know it’s an act.

You see it in every interview, every poem, every story, every reading he’d show up to drunk; everything Bukowski presents is orchestrated to get a reaction out of his audience.  Shock, disgust, excitement, pity — that’s a big one.  He lies about the facts, he lies about his feelings, and he’s hailed as a champion of truth.  What’s left to be true?  He tells people he was born out of wedlock so he can call himself a bastard.  He publishes under the name “Charles” to avoid the draft.  Says his father beat him, but I doubt it.  Says he was a Nazi, but I doubt it.  Plenty of grist there to be honest about, but all we get is “gritty” bullshit.

Side rant:  Over the last decade there’s been a big ridiculous ballyhoo over whether or not Bukowski was a Nazi sympathizer in his youth.  It started with Ben Pleasants’ feature in The Hollywood Reporter, then picked up again when the Los Angeles Cultural Heritage Commission had to decide whether or not to make his bungalow a landmark.  I don’t understand why Bukowski’s political beliefs at the age of 20 matter with respect to the historical significance of his home — especially at a time when there were hundreds of thousands of members in the German-American Bund.  Hell, Prescott Bush was a business partner with Nazis, and that didn’t keep him out of the Senate, or from raising two future presidents.  The commission approved the ordinance three to one and protected Bukowski’s home, but they took the accusation seriously: “‘If I thought that any of the claims were true, in no way would I consider this,’ said commission president Mary Klaus-Martin.”

I don’t understand why it matters whether or not we can use the Nazi label on a man who so often demonstrated such deplorable traits.  Bukowski was not a good person.  He was the kind of guy who thinks its funny to shout, “Turn on the gas!” in a Jewish diner.  Why should it matter whether or not we can call him a Nazi, too?

That said, I don’t think there’s any validity to the Nazi sympathizer claim.  Ben Pleasants makes the mistake that so many do when encountering Bukowski:  Believing a single word he says.  Reading the article, it’s clear that Bukowski was just trying to get a rise out of his young interviewer.  I’m sure the boasting is somehow spliced onto a partial reality, but if you look closely, there are several inconsistencies within the narrative itself.  It would be mind-bendingly ironic if Nazism ultimately tarnished Bukowski’s reputation — an exaggeration he invented himself, but might as well be true, damaging the reputation that he’s too raw to care about, even though he really does.

But what I can’t get over is the simple fact that people take him seriously.  That they believe in his schtick.  Most of his friends and biographers, of course, believe him into a saint.  It’s grotesque.  He hits his girlfriends and he’s a “handful.”  Screams he’ll “get a Jew lawyer to kick [her] whore ass to the curb,” and they just laugh it off.   In1957, he married Barbara Frye sight-unseen because she was rich, but really “she was trying to control him with money.”  Right.

John Martin of Black Sparrow Press calls him:  “Today’s Whitman. A man of the street writing for the people in the street.”  But Bukowski hated the people: “beware the average man/ the average woman/ beware their love/ their love is average.”  He hated everyone — especially, I think, himself.  I really hope that’s not the voice of the people today.  Please tell me it isn’t.  Especially if it’s because so many people relate to his perspective.

There’s one point in the documentary where Bukowski is reading a poem about bathing with his ex-girlfriend Linda King.  Toward the end of the poem he breaks into tears, then composes himself and apologizes for growing sentimental in his old age.  “I read the wrong poem, damnit,” he says.  Of course he could never write about that feeling, because real feeling wasn’t a posture he was willing to hold — only project.

I know there are a lot of Bukowski fans out there — if you disagree with me, feel free to argue.


NOTE (7/27/09): I turned off the commenting on this post, and deleted the last round of comments. I wanted to let valid objections to my opinion stand, but I was tired of the shouting match, where nothing new was being added.