The designation "Los Angeles writer" has become a negative qualifier, indicating a persistent irritant that refuses to go away and must therefore be noticed--just barely noticed: a euphemism for "minor." Thus Nathanael West remains relegated to the lesser leagues, although his short novels outshine many of the sanctified books of his time. No other city name is used to indicate a compromise in artistic creativity.
Bukowski is the possessor of a strong, disturbing voice that has led his ardent admirers to consider his poetry among today's best and to compare his tough-guy prose to that of Ernest Hemingway. Yet he has long been dismissed as only a "Los Angeles writer." He has lived most of his 70 years in Los Angeles, writes mainly about Los Angeles, and does not apologize for either. Still published by a California press, he does not fit neatly within the boundaries of literary acceptability. Though celebrated abroad, in America his work is still begrudged respectful attention by the tomes that purport to establish literary importance.
Those restrictive barriers may have been at least cracked by two recent developments: ironically by his having been the subject of the Hollywood movie "Barfly" and by the appearance of Neeli Cherkovski's biography, a serious appraisal.
Beyond that significance, "Hank" provides a treasure trove for Bukowski fans. The fact that it was written with Bukowski's full cooperation by a former drinking pal accounts for both its strengths and its main weakness.
Cherkovski's access to his subject allows him an intimacy otherwise impossible as he guides us through the poet-author's miserable childhood, scarred by an acute assault of acne; his early drinking; his years as a serf in the post office; the poetry readings that became circuses; his often shabby affairs.
Cherkovski is generous with even the smallest details about his subject: Bukowski detests any poem that contains the words "moon," "star" and/or "infinity." He was given an "Outsider of the Year" plaque by a small-press editor. During a meeting about his movie, he was vastly annoyed by the bouncing of Dennis Hopper's gold neck-chains.
In Cherkovski's knowledgeable description of the little-magazine jungle out of which Bukowski emerged, the literary "underground" is revealed to be just like the overground--nasty, bickering, assaulting other writers, replacing old pontifications with new ones. Here's the editor of a tiny journal responding in lower-case bombast to Bukowski's poetry: "you have taken the art away from the college profs, the creeleys, the william carlos williams, the pounds & eliots . . . back to the financially unstable, ordinary people of the country. . . . YOU are the prime example that the poetry of tomorrow will be the poetry of the fighting, struggling, unprofessional poet."
I'm sure Bukowski's German publisher did not intend black humor, but it is certainly there, when, in the paraphrase of Cherkovski, he responds in exhilaration on first reading Bukowski: "Anyone who could write a line like 'I am going to rob a bank or beat hell out of a blind man any day now, and they'll never know why' needed to be heard in as many places as possible." At best, that is exalted silliness.
There are many poignant moments. As a teen-ager, feeling like "some kind of beast" because of his blemished skin, Bukowski stares only through a window at his own graduation prom. Cherkovski renders a lovely portrait of Bukowski's daughter, wisely allowing her to express in her own words her loyalty to her father, a loyalty enhanced when we see the rambunctious author at her wedding, subdued, a proud father in doting attendance.
Unfortunately, the same intimacy that provides the book's best moments also leads to its central shortcoming: Cherkovski admires Bukowski too much. That causes him to avoid delving into touchy areas that would more sharply illuminate this highly complex man--a man who as a youth thought no woman would ever look at him, who lost his virginity late in life, yet became--Cherkovski offers no telling transition--a man pursued by women, "a sex genius."
A woman Bukowski had lived with and loved, responding to his telephoned taunts about a new woman, grabs his typewriter and threatens to throw it onto the pavement. The man who railed against and was often in trouble with uniformed authorities calls the police and watches her taken away handcuffed. Because, Cherkovski declares, Bukowski found himself "not knowing what else to do."
Bukowski makes an outrageous remark about rape. "Just joking," Cherkovski assures. Perhaps fearful of judging the man he highly admires, Cherkovski does not question the attitude of a man who can confuse alcoholism with "manhood." Bukowski "fires" at the young Cherkovski, whose head is already swirling with booze: "Be a man. Have another beer."
Had Cherkovski pursued his subject into mined territories, Bukowski might have been able to clarify many such touchy areas, even if only with the elliptical logic that permitted him to denounce anti-Vietnam-war demonstrators yet champion the class out of which that war's casualties came.
Cherkovski provides evidence for the deduction that, for all his denunciation of postures, Bukowski has at times quite consciously choreographed his outsider's reputation. He makes tapes of casual conversations. A note to a foreign visitor seems written for effect: "Just step through the door. It's broken anyway. Welcome to the United States."
In the 1970s, poet-actor Gerard Malanga insisted that I accompany him on a visit to the author. I wondered why Malanga, a central figure in the Warhol circle of glittery superstars, was making what seemed a pilgrimage--with the emphatic offering of a six-pack--to the decidedly unglamorous author. When we entered Bukowski's house--he summoned us in from somewhere within--I had the impression that I had wandered onto a set of carefully allowed squalor: dirty clothes displayed all over, crumpled papers like sculpture, cans and bottles gleaming on the floor. There was even a lonely barbell. Then Bukowski appeared. Hunched, slouching, making an entrance, he bent over something on the floor. Surely not rearranging the debris?
Soon, I was struck by how gentle and courteous this reputed "wild man" was. I left with the notion that Bukowski's rough image was as carefully cultivated as was the shimmery glamour of Warhol's darling people.