Review: Charles Bukowski: Selected Letters Volume 1: 1958-1965
by Lee Monks
‘…‘I’m sick of all the 8 hour
faces and laughter and babble, Dodger talk and pussy-talk and zero-talk. A roof,
no rent, that’s my aim…No wonder Van Gogh blasted his head off. Crows and
sunlight. Idle zero. Zero eating your guts like an animal inside…I couldn’t die
stretched in a blizzard because I’m already dead. So let Pound have it. And
Keats. And Shelley. And belly. piss. the mailman with his smirking white
rejectee envelopes, and all the grass growing and the cars going by as if it all
doesn’t matter. Christ, I’m watching a guy water his lawn now. His mind is as
empty as a department store flowerbowl. Water. water. water. make the grass grow
green. GREAT. G R E A T.’
Bukowski’s gravestone reads: ‘Don’t Try’. The first volume of his collected letters provides painfully evident justification for such teeth-grinding self-immolation. Savagely coruscating and yet intermittently conciliatory, they are consistent in their rabidly misanthropic resignation, tinged as the finality of his worldview is by the kind of gallows humour it’s impossible to fake.
For those unfamiliar with the Bukowski legend: grizzled iconoclast and terminal drop-out with a pathological desire to preserve quotidian scenes, a revoker of the unspoken consensus as to what matters and what is disposable, an interrogator of the conspiracy of careerism and consumerism. He was the foremost spokesman for the forgotten detritus of Americana, the self-appointed curator of worthless phenomena, cast anew alongside a flatline of social and cultural magnitude as a searing collection of nothingness.
The letters chart a growing discontent offset only marginally by a taste of celebrity and the realisation of his desire to have his poetry published singularily. The old bugbears eclipse everything – a maddening sense of futility, inexorable despair, gambling and women woes – but bleed fruitfully into what he recognizes is his only salvage; writing. He ‘can’t even walk across a room successfully’ and getting lost on the way back from an abortive photo-shoot he lambasts himself hilariously and bemoans the fact that he ‘gets into these things time and time again.’ He is a physical disaster, a drunk, and yet; women flock to his junkyard of an apartment and circumvent empty bottles on a never-ending basis. He, of course, fails to enjoy many of these encounters and remarks little upon them. He spends more time considering with stark equanimity his deteriorating health exemplified by the bloody emissions all too frequently heading out of him.
Pretty bleak, then, but not unleavened with black laughter; novels such as Post Office (released two years beyond the period covered here but drawn from his ‘day job’ of the time – lugging letters around in the day; attempting to scratch out poetry thereafter) and Women would combine accounts of deathly drudgery, insane women, boundless hedonism and nihilistic plod with a railing, unforgiving wit. The letters, though, flesh out the man for too long considered a kind of hopelessly maudlin idler or deadbeat; whereas with Women and Factotum in particular it’s hard to rebuff oft-cited notions of rife misogyny, he displays in these correspondences a massive intellect, an exhaustive literary knowledge, adeptly searing criticism (even one of his heroes, Hemingway, gets a bit of a kicking) and, vitally, an epically tragic end empathetic human being possessing a fatally grim and exact self-perception that did him few favours and us plenty.
Indeed, his worldview, freighted as it is by a dolorous acceptance of events playing themselves out whilst he scrabbles to make sense of anything in the face of all the usual travails (the wolf being never too far from the door, and oft as good as invited in a fit of drunken gambling self-destruction) is coloured somewhat more hopefully in epistolary form, digestible as it is as a less hard-bitten interior monologue that might’ve been expected than of a man energized by the very things that enraged and stultified him. Suffering for your art mightn’t be quite adequate or appropriate; firing off assemblages of volatile musings in the face of imminent but begrudgingly inevitable meltdown might be a better of way of conveying the contents of this volume. The furious deadweight Bukowski could scarcely rid himself of before the bottom of the bottle was reached is ubiquitously tangible; thankfully, so too is a glimpse of the man that wrote Ham On Rye. A man doomed to failure and not one to put any stock in happiness in any guise but one willing to take it all on the chin until he finally went down.