You used to read him, in the late ‘50s, in the back pages of slim literary magazines in the Fiction and Literature Room of the Main Library downtown.
To be reading Charles Bukowski at all meant you weren’t like the rest of “them.” You didn’t buy Frank Sinatra albums with the tinted singer posing against pale turquoise covers. You didn’t watch Ed Sullivan. You turned up your nose at Milton Berle. You didn’t have a television in the house! And you snickered at the middle-brow fiction of the day. Your parents may have invested in “By Love Possessed” by James Gould Cozzens, but not you. You put on your black turtleneck and hauled on out to the Fiction and Literature Room, waiting for the next monthly issue of whatever quarterlies there were, waiting for the next things that Bukowski had to say.
Because Bukowski drank himself into an unattractive stupor on a regular basis and then wrote about it. He wasn’t very fond of the ladies he slept with, but he slept with a lot of them, and then wrote about it. He was as old as our parents, it seemed: Even then, he was an old guy--but he was as unregenerately messy as an unmade bed; bleary-eyed, his complexion a relief map of the Andes put together by a clumsy seventh-grader.
Even from his photographs, you sensed that he took baths only on Christmas and Easter--or, more correctly, in the pagan fashion--on the summer and winter solstices. He was a bum. He was poor. He was cantankerous. And he wrote like a 17-year-old angel with pink sheets and golden wings.
In the ‘60s, Bukowski’s troubles deepened. He went from being the most obscure of poets to something of a media product. Hells Angels on their bikes idolized him. He got involved in some battle-of-the-sexes triangle that played out in the then-extremely popular Los Angeles Free Press. The girl he left behind mourned long and publicly--and then wrote an embarrassing poem to her belly, lying low and slack out along her thighs. (It was the ‘60s. People did things like that.) Bukowski himself seemed to reduce, to disappear, under ever-thicker coats of lamination as Los Angeles’ “Bad Boy.”
But one time, during a television documentary of his life, Bukowski, hanging out in a California bungalow in Silver Lake, or Echo Park, squared off against the ghost of his dead Prussian father: He was the kind of man, Bukowski remembered, who would send his son out to mow the lawn, demanding that the lawn be mowed this way and that way, and that way, and this way again, so that every single blade of grass would be cut at exactly the same height. After the young Bukowski had finished the lawn, his father would come out, lie flat down on the sidewalk, and sight along every square inch of grass. If he could find one blade that still grew higher than the others, Bukowski’s father would beat him mercilessly. “But I’m not going to say too much about him,” the sluggish, insolent, sloppy, drunken, cantankerous poet allowed, “because whatever I do, that Prussian blood still runs in my veins,” or so I remember those words.
The Prussian blood always showed, in Bukowski’s perfect attention to craft. But now, in “Hollywood,” a charming, elegiac novel, the poet turns his attention to the weird insistence and inevitability of the American Dream. If you work terribly hard in America; if you keep mowing that metaphorical lawn, if you do your work and do your work, then success is sure to follow, like a dog follows you to school. In spite of all the drink, all the diatribes, all the disgruntled ladies he’s left in his wake, success has come to Charles Bukowski. The Establishment has even made a movie about his life, “Barfly,” with genuine movie stars, Mickey Roarke and Faye Dunaway. The hard-working, hard-drinking poet finally “went Hollywood,” and “Hollywood” is his gentle, self-forgiving novel about that phenomenon.
We see the poet as a real old guy, Hank Chinaski, married now to Sarah, a savvy Nora Charles of a wife, who is apt to interrupt her husband just as he gets conversationally wound up: “It’s one of his favorite stories,” she’ll say. “I love him, but you have no idea how many times I’ve had to listen to that story.” And, yes, when they go to the movies, Chinaski must go through the embarrassing, all-too-familiar ritual: Two tickets, “one senior.” Sarah has weaned the poet, (for the most part) away from hard liquor, but both of them are devoted to good red wine. They live a pleasing, private existence until the fateful day when an independent producer asks Chinaski to write a screenplay about his own past life, and tosses in $10,000 as advance and incentive. Chinaski agrees: It sounds like fun and it won’t be taxing enough to keep him away from what has become his real vocation, spending long, lucrative days at the track.
The narrative then embarks on parallel courses. A movie is being made, and the former avant-garde poet finds himself in the thick of that process: He meets the creme de la creme of film land; a French “genius,” for instance, who goes by the moniker of Jean-Paul Modard: " . . . We poured some more wine. It was all really excellent. Life was good. All you had to do in their little world was be a writer or an artist or a ballet dancer and you could just sit or stand around, inhaling and exhaling, drinking wine, pretending you knew what the Hell.”
But Chinaski can’t be so pure and aloof about his own “art” anymore. That $10,000 brings him his very own tax man, who assures him he has to spend his money before the government gets it. He and Sarah go house hunting in a place where they think they “ought” to be--Topanga Canyon. A grizzled lady realtor with a country accent you can cut with a butter knife tries to sell them a cozy little cabin where some of the Manson murders came down. They end up buying a car instead--a BMW.
It goes on like that. The project’s funding starts and stops a million times. The producer threatens literally to dismember himself in order to get the movie completed. But as the production begins, goes on, ends, Chinaski is hit by a terrible sadness. The movie is about barflys, and there was a time when Chinaski was a barfly. A time when there was only him and words and liquor, and nothing else. A time when--all our current anti-alcohol rhetoric to the contrary--Chinaski knows for sure he’s done his best work.
He and Sarah may go to screenings now, armed with their own separate bottles of wine, but they cannot be outrageous, because they are too successful. And Chinaski is old. He can watch his life re-enacted, but he can’t get back in. He is left with the results of his life: a good woman who loves him and deflates him, a car that runs like a top, biker-fans who embarrass him; a respectable life and a distinguished body of work. Even Bukowski’s exacting father might approve. “Hollywood” is strange, Bukowski tells us. But life is even stranger.