Charles Bukowski | Critical Review by Elizabeth Young

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Charles Bukowski.
This section contains 795 words
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Critical Review by Elizabeth Young

SOURCE: "Bum steered," in New Statesman and Society, June 17, 1994, pp. 37-38.

Young provides a favorable review of the Bukowski anthology Run With The Hunted: A Charles Bukowski Reader.

Any serious reader thinks they know only too well what Charles Bukowski's work will deliver. Wet rings on bar counters; the swish of the barman's dirty cloth. Rotgut whisky and paint-stripper wine. Misanthropy. Despair. Women with big, swaying bottoms and very high heels. A touch of misogyny. Barflies, bums, floozies, the tote, the track and the betting shop. He's typing in his underwear in a low-rent room, with a filthy glass, an empty bottle and an overflowing ashtray beside him. Yes, we had him well sussed.

And so, with all due respect to this recently departed author, why read any more of the old fart's books? After all there are nearly 50 of them—poetry, short stories and novels (as well as the screenplay for Barfly)—with his reason for choosing one form over another often seeming to be quite arbitrary.

These were my feelings, vaguely, upon picking up Run With The Hunted, and seldom have smug assumptions been so suddenly and sharply rebuked. I read this at one sitting and found it to be one of the rarest of volumes—a beautifully edited anthology of a writer's work, collated by an editor profoundly sympathetic to his author's intentions.

From the vast vat of Bukowski homebrew, John Martin has distilled a cut-glass decanter of 100-proof literary perfection. That he should have been able to do so is not altogether surprising as Martin, at Black Sparrow Press, has been Bukowski's most consistent publisher and editor, as well as supporter and mentor. It was he who released Bukowski in the 1960's, at the age of 45, from 11 years of wage slavery at the post office by offering him $100 a month if he would do nothing else but write. And this Bukowski did—whether drunk or sober, rich, poor, infatuated or broken-hearted. But then Bukowski had written obsessionally for a long time before that—apart from a 10-year alcoholic hiatus during the 1950's when his liver swelled to the size of a watermelon.

This is a poignant and moving book. By the simple expedient of using extracts from Bukowski's books and poems in chronological order (corresponding to his life story) rather than in the order that they were published, Martin in effect supplies us with Bukowski's own autobiography. Born in Germany in 1920, Bukowski landed in America in infancy and spent his life in Los Angeles, a city he both loved and hated.

His childhood was blighted by a brutal father—"a cruel, shiny bastard with bad breath". In adolescence he suffered terribly from boils and acne and from the gut-churning treatments available at the time. These experiences left him feeling ugly and hopeless and he drifted into a long series of dead-end jobs, including a stint in a dog biscuit factory. At other times he existed as a Skid Row bum.

Despite his decades of devoted reading and writing, his straightforward, largely autobiographical work received little attention until his middle years, when he was discovered by a disaffected post-Beat audience of younger readers, particularly in Europe, and propelled into the spotlight. His persona became increasingly fixed and near-parodic but he did attempt to write about the cryptic, complex ways of fame with honesty and intelligence.

He noted in detail both its advantages—meeting celebrities, other writers and being showered with groupies from Planet Mensa—and its disadvantages—which were more or less identical. He tended to cling nostalgically to his old, grimy alcoholic ways until taken in hand by second wife Linda, who enabled him to die a rich drunken bum.

In addition to its acerbic edge, Bukowski's writing always possessed a sense of the frailty of human endeavor. Hemingway was his most obvious stylistic influence. Bukowski's was a lifelong struggle to express himself clearly, honestly and concisely. He has similarities with Henry Miller and, like Miller, has had trouble over his alleged "sexism", although much of this seems no more than normal lust accompanied by the bewilderment and irritations that attend its slaking.

Bukowski's own influence on younger writers has been subtle and pernicious. There is a hugely increased tendency to substitute personal experience for imagination in fiction. Much new fiction shows how gifted Bukowski was in shaping and organizing the original material into something far more significant than a self-obsessed diary.

John Martin has done Bukowski a great service—and a sort of disservice too. After such a brilliantly constructed anthology, who is going to read all the books? His posthumous novel Pulp is the first to take a non-autobiographical tack. It is modeled on the hard-boiled private-eye novels of Chandler and Hammett and is likely to divert those who appreciate that genre, and its lively collision with Bukowksi's trademark style.

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This section contains 795 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Elizabeth Young
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