BUKOWSKI : He’s written more than 40 books, and in Europe he’s treated like a rock star. He has dined with Norman Mailer and goes to the race track with Sean Penn. Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway are starring in a movie based on his life. At 66, poet Charles Bukowski is suddenly in vogue.
CHARLES BUKOWSKI is 66 years old, with a sandblasted face, warts on his eyelids and a dominating nose that looks as if it was assembled in a junkyard from Studebaker hoods and Buick fenders. Yet his voice is so soft and bemused that it’s hard to take him seriously when he says: “I don’t like people. I don’t even like myself. There must be something wrong with me.”
Despite having lived in Los Angeles for more than 60 years, outside certain in-group literary circles Bukowski is either unknown or regarded as a hard-drinking womanizer who knocks off some flashy poetry on the infrequent occasions that he’s not too drunk to type. In fact, he’s a disciplined and prolific writer who, over the past 30 years, has published more than 1,000 poems, 32 books of poetry, 5 books of short stories, 4 novels and an autobiographical screenplay. (“Barfly” began filming in February with Barbet Schroeder directing; it stars Mickey Rourke, as the young Bukowski, and Faye Dunaway.)
To his fans, some of whom pay as much as $600 for rare early editions of his poetry, Bukowski is the best of the Meat School poets, described by enthusiasts as those who write in a tough, direct masculine manner about the concerns of the lumpenproletariat , as opposed to anguished middle-class poets with precious or ambiguous styles. Bukowski, says one critic, nails “the words to the page in intensely personal, rawly sensitive poems and wild, raunchy, anecdotal short stories” wrenched, says another, “out of his own ulcerated guts.” The main character in his poems and short stories, which are largely autobiographical, is usually a down-and-out writer who spends his time working at marginal jobs (and getting fired from them), getting drunk and making love with a succession of bimbos and floozies. Otherwise, he hangs out with fellow losers--whores, pimps, alcoholics, drifters, the people who lose their rent money at the race track, leave notes of goodby on dressers and have flat tires on the freeway at 3 a.m.
Although Bukowski remains largely unappreciated at home, his European book sales have made him a wealthy man. Two million copies of his books are in print, most of them in translation, in languages from French to Greek to Portuguese. His latest novel, “Ham on Rye,” was a best-seller in Brazil. In Germany and France his visits are major cultural events. Newspapers run front-page stories. Fans follow him around as if he were a rock star. And one French television station used to run brief segments of prerecorded interviews with him as a way of ending the broadcast day.
In one of these segments (taped by Schroeder and recently released in this country on videocassette), Bukowski is shown sitting on a couch late one warm evening with his girlfriend (now his wife), Linda Lee Beighle, drinking wine and bitterly complaining that she is out every night. Beighle responds that she hasn’t been running around; she’s been attending meetings of an Indian mystic society. “And I’m not out every night.”
“The month of May you were out 15 nights past midnight.”
Beighle throws back her head and laughs.
“That’s true,” says Bukowski. “The calendar is marked.”
Suddenly Bukowski explodes. “You think you can walk out on me every night, you whore? Who do you think you are?”
It’s a painful scene to watch, especially since Beighle has been smiling gamely, as if to say, “He’s really not serious. We do this all the time.” Then, astonishingly, Bukowski kicks her off the couch. As he lunges after her, wine flies everywhere, and there are sounds of a struggle and a thud off camera. Later, when Schroeder’s cameraman, Paul Challacombe, edited the tapes for television, he showed the scene to Beighle and Bukowski. And this, Challacombe says, is the reason he likes the couple so much: When he asked them if they wanted that segment cut, they answered, “Hell no, it’s the best part.”
BUKOWSKI LIVES IN San Pedro in a large hillside home that he bought in 1979. (“In this country, if you don’t spend your money, they take it away,” he says.) Despite his reputation as the enfant terrible of the Meat School poets, in person Bukowski is modest and deferential. When a reporter visited him early one evening, Bukowski came stumbling barefoot down the stairs, holding up his pants with one hand and pulling on a shirt with the other. The collar was turned under and his belly stuck out, smooth and white. Due to a mix-up, the reporter had arrived an hour and a half sooner than expected. “Gee,” Bukowski said. “I’m embarrassed.” Rather than make the reporter wait, he offered to skip dinner and get right to the interview.
Later that evening he sat with his wife on the couch in front of his fireplace, sipping red wine and talking about his current life, which, he says, is simple and sedate. At his wife’s urging, he has given up hard liquor and red meat. Now he takes 40 vitamin pills a day, eats lots of fish and drinks expensive wine. If the horses are running, he invariably spends the day at the track. Betting on horses, he says, “is the ultimate character test. Anyone can lose. It takes a certain amount of character to win.” (Actually, says his 22-year-old daughter, Marina, “my father always has a system for beating the horses. If it doesn’t work, he tries another. He figures that people who go to the track are losers. The crowd is always wrong. So he figures out where they are and does the opposite.”)
Bukowski does his writing at night in a small upstairs room. In contrast to the airy spaciousness of the rest of the house, it is a dingy cell, not unlike the rooms in which he has spent most of his life. He hasn’t made any effort to make it cozy, and it looks as though it hasn’t been painted in 30 years. There is a stationary bicycle with a shirt thrown over it, cardboard boxes filled with letters and manuscripts, a dim overhead light and a scarred desk in the corner.
“The wine,” he explains, “does most of my writing. I just open a bottle and turn on the radio, and it just comes pouring out. I only type every third night. I have no plan. My mind is a blank. I sit down. The typewriter gives me things I don’t even know I’m working on. It’s a free lunch. A free dinner. I don’t know how long it is going to continue, but so far there is nothing easier than writing.”
Before coming to talk to Bukowski, the reporter had received more than one warning that Bukowski might get drunk and abusive. But he was genial to a fault. At one point he roared into the tape recorder, “Is this the Bukowski you want to see?” meaning that if the reporter needed a drunken tirade he’d be happy to accommodate. Bukowski was so amiable, in fact, that by the time the evening was over, he had begun to fear that he might come out looking like a lamb, with all his fire and venom gone. “Don’t feel bad about being a little bit harsh,” he told the reporter, “because harsh means interesting. I’m just a guy who drinks wine and has a lucky typewriter. Don’t make me a congenial soul. Insult me a little bit. Put some salt on me. Make me dangerous. Help sell my books.”
IF THE BEST TRAINING for a writer is an unhappy childhood, Bukowski’s was first rate. He was born in 1920 in Andernach, Germany, a small Rhine village near Cologne. His parents came to the United States in 1922, living first in Baltimore, then in Pasadena and eventually settling in Los Angeles at 2122 Longwood Ave. His father, who was a milkman, administered a tough Prussian discipline, beating the timid young Bukowski with a razor strop for the slightest offense (including, Bukowski says, missing so much as a single blade of grass when mowing the lawn). This made Bukowski so tense that he developed boils all over his body.
Bullied by other boys because of his small size and rejected by girls because of his complexion, Bukowski hid his sensitivity under a hard, self-sufficient exterior. Likeable in spite of himself, he attracted hordes of what he calls “idiot friends.” When Bukowski was 13, one of them invited him to his father’s wine cellar and served him his first drink of alcohol. “It was magic,” Bukowski would later write. “Why hadn’t someone told me?” This was the universal answer to his boils, his idiot friends and his father’s razor strop.
In 1939, Bukowski enrolled in Los Angeles City College to study journalism and English. Discovering that most of his professors were left-wing, he says, he decided to make things more interesting by posing as a Nazi. “I was just entertaining myself,” he says. “I had disciples and I wasn’t even serious.”
At the outset of World War II, Bukowski, who felt he wasn’t learning anything, dropped out of school and moved to New York to become a writer. “I landed there with $7 and no job and no friends,” he says. “The buildings scared me. The people scared me. The women wouldn’t even speak to me.”
After three months, he moved to Philadelphia. Forced to choose between writing and eating, he went as long as four days without food to buy stamps to mail his poems and short stories to magazines. He hadn’t bothered to keep the draft board informed of his change of address, so one day, he says, two FBI agents knocked on his door.
“I was half nuts at the time. I thought they were coming to give me the Nobel Prize for literature. They said, ‘Put your coat on. We’re taking you in.’ ”
After 17 days in a local prison, he was taken to an Army induction center. He passed the physical, but in the psychiatric exam his rebellious nature showed. As Bukowski tells the story, the psychiatrist asked him just three questions:
“Do you believe in the war?”
“Would you go to the war?”
“I can tell you are a very intelligent man. I’m having a party at my house next Wednesday night for writers and painters. Will you come?”
“No,” said Bukowski, whereupon the psychiatrist excused him from the draft on the grounds that he was too antisocial to be in the Army.
Bukowski spent the next couple of years traveling and writing. After he was forced to hock his typewriter, he printed his stories by hand. He wrote as many as 10 poems a night, five short stories a week. “He needed to write so much,” says his daughter, “that he’d write with a pencil on a brown paper bag.” His suitcase bulged with manuscripts, and he stacked the overflow on the closet floor.
In 1946, with a pile of rejection slips from publications including Atlantic Monthly and Harper’s Magazine, Bukowski decided to give up writing. It wasn’t that he doubted his talent. He felt that he was too inexperienced to have anything to write about. Besides, he says, the writing in the major literary magazines was pompous and false. “You had to read a story five times to discover that the woman had an abortion or the guy committed suicide.” If that was what it took to be a successful writer, he didn’t want any part of it. “So I said the hell with it, I’ll just concentrate on drinking.”
Starting at age 26, Bukowski went on a binge that took him to most parts of the country and lasted until he was 35. In 1955, after a decade of raw whiskey, bad food and sleepless nights in cheap hotels, he ended up in Los Angeles County General Hospital with a bleeding ulcer. When he came out, his life had changed. “I was supposed to die and didn’t,” he says. “So I started writing again. But instead of short stories, it came out as poetry.”
BUKOWSKI NEVER HAD any grand theories about writing poetry, explains old friend and fellow poet Neeli Cherkovski. “He would simply say, ‘You put it down in blood on the line. Put it down hard, baby. Lay it down the way you feel.’ ” The result, Cherkovski says, was a direct, gutsy style that seemed less like poetry and more “like a guy sitting across the bar talking to you.”
Right from the beginning, Bukowski knew that if a poet wants to be read, he has to be noticed first. “So,” he once said, “I got my act up. I wrote vile (but interesting) stuff that made people hate me, that made them curious about this Bukowski. I threw bodies off my porch into the night. I sneered at hippies. I was in and out of drunk tanks. A lady accused me of rape.”
In 1960, a poetry aficionado in Eureka, Calif., published Bukowski’s first book of poetry, “Flower, Fist and Bestial Wail.” It was 30 pages, mimeographed. Only 200 copies were made, and few people saw it. Three years later, Loujon Press, a specialty publishing house in New Orleans, issued his second book of poetry, “It Catches My Heart In Its Hand,” in a magnificent edition on quality paper. Suddenly, Bukowski discovered, literally hundreds of small poetry magazines were ready, even eager, to run his stuff.
By the mid-'60s, says Cherkovski, Bukowski had been published in so many small poetry magazines that he had become the king of underground poetry, “the undisputed master, the grand champion, the one who would go 15 rounds and was ready for 15 more.” Still, critical acceptance continued to elude him. For one thing, he was a bit too rough and raw, says fellow poet and friend Gerald Locklin, a professor at California State University, Long Beach. For another, he made it look too easy. Ever since Wordsworth, academic poets had been talking about the need to restore poetry to its original function, which was to tell a story in an accessible, conversational voice. And then, while they were sitting around worrying about it, Locklin says, Bukowski “just sort of went out and did it.”
Bukowski’s principal American publisher is John Martin, the acerbic, no-nonsense founder of Black Sparrow Press. In 1965, Martin was working for a Los Angeles office-supply firm, and, in his spare time, hanging out in poetry bookstores, where, he says, “I kept seeing this great work by a man named Charles Bukowski.” Learning that the poet lived in Los Angeles, Martin paid him a visit.
Bukowski still laughs when he tells the story. Martin walked in, he says, and the first thing he said was, “I worship you.”
“That’s all right,” said Bukowski. “Would you like a beer?”
Explaining that he wanted to publish Bukowski’s poetry, Martin asked if he had any material. Bukowski opened the closet door and Martin was astounded to see a stack of manuscripts four feet high. As Bukowski tells it, Martin dropped to his hands and knees and began to read: “This one’s great. This one’s not so good. This one’s immortal.”
Three years later, Martin’s newly founded press was ready to publish its first book of Bukowski’s poetry, “At Terror Street and Agony Way.” “With my heart in my mouth, I printed 500 copies,” Martin says, “because all the other people had done 100 and 200 and 300 copies (of Bukowski’s work) and had never sold them out. And snap, it was just gone.” The following year Martin published another book, “The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses Over The Hills.” It too sold out. After that, says Martin, “we never looked back.”
FOR MOST OF HIS writing career, Bukowski supported himself with menial jobs. He was afraid that a job that demanded intelli gence would sap his creativity. Besides, he says, those were “the only jobs I could get.” But by 1958, the strain of making the rent and paying child support (by then he had a daughter) forced him to take a permanent position with the U.S. Postal Service, sorting mail at the Terminal Annex in downtown Los Angeles. He found the bureaucratic monotony deadening. (In order to memorize ZIP codes he matched them with obscene words.) And the job left him little time for writing. “He used to call me late at night from the post office,” says John Martin, “and say, ‘I am going to die if I don’t get out of here.’ ”
In 1969, Martin offered him a way out. “I told him that I would give him $100 a month if he would quit the post office and write full time.” It was the biggest decision of Bukowski’s life. He had made virtually no money from his writing. He had no savings, no assets, and the only thing he had to look forward to for his old age was his post office pension. Martin says Bukowski “sat down and agonizingly figured out what he could live on. His rent was something like $29; $32 for food, $15 for child support. And he figured if he cut back on beer and cigarettes and didn’t use the phone, he could live on $100 a month.”
In December, Bukowski quit the post office and began to write full time. “In January,” says Martin, “he called me up a couple of times to let me know I was getting my money’s worth and that he was working every day. Then on the 21st of January--I’ll never forget it--he called me up to say, ‘It’s done.’
“I said, ‘What’s done?’
“He said, ‘My novel. Come and get it.’
“ ‘What’s the title?’
“He said, ‘ “Post Office.” ’
“That was his first novel. I published it early the next year. It has sold perhaps 75,000 copies domestically and probably 500,000 additional copies worldwide.”
IN THE LATE ‘60s and early ‘70s, Bukowski lived in a 500-square-foot apartment at 5124 De Longpre Ave. in Hollywood. Although he was fastidious about his person, taking up to five hot baths a day, his apartment was filthy--rumpled sheets on the bed and a halo of pork fat on the floor around the stove. “Women would go to his apartment,” says Ben Pleasants,who is writing a biography of Bukowski, “and gasp at the way he lived.”
To supplement his $100-a-month income, Bukowski wrote for the more lascivious men’s magazines, including Hustler, and for underground newspapers--Open City and the Los Angeles Free Press. “I never got that much money--$15 a column--but it was exhilarating to know that you could write something one day and three days later there it was on the streets. The hippies loved me. I would walk into the newspaper and they would start screaming, ‘Bukowski! Bukowski!’ ”
One of Bukowski’s best friends during this period was Cherkovski. A former speech writer for George Moscone and a biographer of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Cherkovski is funny, articulate, exuberant and wild. “I lived for the times I could be with him,” he says of those days with Bukowski. “He had this Bogart-like voice and ravaged face. He was rebellious, he was irreverent, and he didn’t believe in traditional American values.”
“One day,” Cherkovski says, “I got a call from Bukowski. He said, ‘I got a great idea. We’re going to do a magazine and we’re going to call it The Contemporary Review of Art, Music and Literature, a Non-Snob Compilation of Active Creativity Now.’
“I said, ‘What?’
“He said, ‘Yeah, I met this millionaire I used to go to school with. And he’s going to put up the bread for it. It’s going to be a big, slick magazine. We’re going to be famous, kid. We’re going all the way.’
“I said, ‘Well, there is just one problem.’
“He said, ‘What is it?’
“I said, ‘The name. The Contemporary Review? It just doesn’t fit.’
“He said, ‘You know, you’re right.’
“Seventy-two hours later, I get a call at 2 or 3 in the morning and it’s Bukowski. ‘I got it, kid.’
“ ‘I got the title: Laugh Literary and Man the Humping Guns, published by the Hatchetman Press.’ ”
Between 1969 and 1972, Bukowski and Cherkovski put out three editions of Laugh Literary. “We had one subscriber,” Bukowski says. “I was very proud of him.”
To their surprise, they received 70 or 80 poetry submissions from college professors, along with resumes and pretentious cover letters. During one drunken editorial meeting, Cherkovski says, Bukowski wrote “This won’t do” on the back of one of the envelopes, along with an obscenity. Then Cherkovski took some of the unsolicited poems and wrote on them, “We wouldn’t publish this if our lives depended on it!” Before mailing the manuscripts, says Bukowski, they smeared them with raw eggs, soaked them in beer and set them on fire. Although it seemed funny at the time, now he says he’s ashamed of that “moment of madness.”
By the late ‘70s, Bukowski’s reputation was such that he could make $200 in an evening by giving a poetry reading. But he could only survive them by getting drunk beforehand. Many in the audience did the same thing, and as a result his poetry readings were raucous affairs. “They were full of madcap people,” says Ben Pleasants, “some of whom loved him, some of whom hated him, screaming and yelling and jumping up and down.”
“They were horrible for him,” says John Martin. “He only did them out of a kind of desperation and because it was $200. Afterwards he would slink home, utterly destroyed.” His daughter, Marina, now a senior studying mechanical engineering at Cal State Long Beach, says that after such episodes he couldn’t look at a typewriter for two weeks.
NEELI CHERKOVSKI says that the first time he and his father met Bukowski (Cherkovski was just a teen-ager), the poet came on tough. “He said, ‘Sam, I’ve killed five men with these hands.’ When my father questioned it, he said, ‘Well, maybe three men.’ Finally, it was down to none.”
Although Bukowski likes to portray himself as an outsider and a loner, “there were plenty of times,” Cherkovski says, “when he would call me up and say, ‘Come on over. I’ve got the deep blues, man.’ ”
Once, says Cherkovski, he and Bukowski were returning from a friend’s house in Venice and they stopped off in Westwood. Bukowski was roaring drunk. “And he ran down the main street with his zipper down saying he was going to expose himself. I was running after him, so fearful for him I was almost in tears. I finally got him in the car. And I remember this long horrible rap going home. He was revealing himself in a way he rarely did--the pain of working and wanting to make it with his writing. He rarely did that.”
Bukowski could also be “very insulting and cruel,” Cherkovski says. Cherkovski would drive across town to see him, only to be told, “What are you doing here? I don’t need you.”
Or Bukowski would say, “When I first met Neeli, he was 16 and I was Bukowski.”
“A couple of times we had a fight,” says Cherkovski, “and he said, ‘You know what will happen to you if you leave this room, baby?’
“I asked, ‘What?’
“You’ll be committing literary suicide.’ ”
Director Taylor Hackford, who made a documentary on Bukowski in the early ‘70s, says it is a mistake to read a story by Bukowski as straight autobiography. When Hackford’s film was broadcast, Bukowski praised it as honest and direct. Nevertheless, Hackford says, Bukowski later wrote a short story about the making of the film in which he portrayed himself as a sensitive artist beset by Hollywood phonies. “And I said to (Bukowski): ‘It didn’t happen. I was there. I have it on film.’
“He said: ‘It doesn’t matter what happened. What I write is what happened. And guess what? I’m always the hero.’ ”
Although Bukowski says he doesn’t mind being attacked--"When I read a critical review, I say, ‘Ahhh, I got them excited’ "--when the attack is too personal, he is as deeply stung as anyone. “Some newspaper ran a story,” he says. “The headline said, ‘Charles Bukowski Is Really a Very Nasty Person.’ I said, ‘Hey, this is good.’ But they weren’t kidding. It made me sick.” The problem, he says, is that the people who knew him as a poor, starving, drunken poet resent his success. “I have a BMW, and it drives them mad.”
With his screenplay in production for The Cannon Group Inc., Bukowski has begun to come into contact with such people as Sean Penn, Madonna and Harry Dean Stanton. Last year he had a long dinner with Norman Mailer in which, according to his publisher, the pair talked about what a drag it is to be considered a tough guy in literature. To his surprise, says Bukowski, he liked Mailer--no matter what the subject, Mailer had something worthwhile to say. “But I still don’t care for his writing.” He allows Penn, who was briefly considered for the role of Bukowski in “Barfly,” to accompany him to the track (an almost unheard-of honor in Bukowski circles). Penn, he says, is a nice kid, quiet and low key. And Penn returns the compliment, saying: “The delicate way he lights his cigarettes somehow tells the whole story. He does have a big heart.”
There are several reasons why Bukowski hasn’t received his due from critics, and none of the reasons, says professor and poet Gerald Locklin, reflect well on the Eastern literary Establishment. Bukowski doesn’t give academicians the respect they are used to. “He not only knows that the literary world is rife with charlatanism, self-promotion and mutual back-scratching,” Locklin says, “but he hasn’t hesitated to say so.” His stories, in addition, have never supported the Eastern contention that everyone out West is nuts. (This is why Bret Easton Ellis’ book, “Less Than Zero,” was so popular back East, says Locklin.) Finally, Locklin says--and this is the one thing for which the Eastern literary Establishment can never forgive Bukowski--"he likes L.A.”
It may be long after Black Sparrow is gone, John Martin says, but one day Bukowski is going to be published by the big Eastern presses, whereupon the American reading public at last will recognize what the Europeans have known all along: Bukowski isn’t just another harmless writer who won’t make any difference in your life. He’s powerful, he’s challenging. He’s constantly throwing a “cold glass of water in your face and telling you to think about what you are and what life is all about. Wait till Bukowski clicks in,” says Martin. “It’s going to be incredible.”
TWO BY BUKOWSKI
the meek have inherited
if I suffer at this
think how I’d feel
among the lettuce-
pickers of Salinas?
I think of the men
I’ve known in
with no way to
choking while living
choking while laughing
at Bob Hope or Lucille
2 or 3 children beat
tennis balls against
some suicides are never
From “Love Is a Dog From Hell.” Copyright 1977 by Charles Bukowski. Reprinted with permission of Black Sparrow Press. shoes
when you’re young
a pair of
in the closet
can fire your
when you’re old
a pair of shoes
From “You Get So Alone At Times It Just Makes Sense.” Copyright 1986 by Charles Bukowski. Reprinted with permission of Black Sparrow Press.