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Critical Review by Julian Smith
SOURCE: "Charles Bukowski and the Avante-Garde," in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 5, No. 3, Fall 1985, pp. 56-59.
In the following review, Smith discusses the humor in Bukowski's short stories.
What is the avant-garde? A cultural elite, making Advanced or High Art, but it is also a tradition of the untraditional. Precedents exist for virtually every avant-garde eccentricity or innovation. As Roland Barthes puts it, "The avant-garde is never anything but the progressive, emancipated form of past culture." While it may become politicized (during the Vietnam War, even "the gloriously impertinent Bukowski" was temporarily radicalized), it is typically individualist, antiformal, anarchistic. Bohemian life-styles, épater les bourgeois, the alienation (psychological, ethical, economic) of the artist from society: Bukowski's writing echoes all these attitudes.
Bukowski's opposition to the status quo is signaled by his language. The tough-drunk persona created in the writing is intimately linked to the way in which his fictions operate, and he shows enormous resource in working a subversive content on the linguistic level. We term "postmodern" those writers who have learned from modernism, and then added extrastylistic components. While Bukowski had to erase other voices from his work (Céline, John Fante), he rewrote Hemingway with postmodern laughter, forming an utterly distinctive writing—allusive, anarchic and miraculously entertaining.
I take Bukowski's most intense and hilarious prose to be Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions and General Tales of Ordinary Madness (1972) and the collection Notes of a Dirty Old Man (1969). So, I shall refer to these in discussing his fictional tactics, brilliant effects, and peculiar linguistic stew.
In common with many other writers (Ginsberg, Burroughs, Snyder), Bukowski published in underground newspapers of the 1960's and 1970's; he became a prolific contributor to his local papers, Open City and L.A. Free Press, and his fiction took its place alongside coverage of student unrest, the New Left, black power, civic and police corruption, the draft resistance, drug information, and adverts for sexual contacts and services.
Exploiting this popular platform for his writing, Bukowski's uninhibited mixture of fiction and opinion is almost impossible to read without explosive laughter on virtually every page. This is partly the result of subject matter in Notes: a winged baseball hero brought down to earth by women and drink; sex with a three-hundred-pound whore; the last days of Neal Cassady; boxing and racing; revolution and literature; a man who wakes to find his skin turned gold with green polka dots (recalling Kafka's Metamorphosis); drunkenly mistaken anal intercourse; demonology; and a grossly superb cast list of comically inept muggers, murderers, gangsters, misogynists, bums and whores, rapacious land-ladies, struggling writers, misunderstood geniuses, day laborers, perverts and other social oddballs.
This satiric critique of capitalism, bourgeois morality and conventional culture is accompanied by a deliberately disorderly syntax, a "spontaneous" typewriterese that creates its effect by a radical difference from smoother, more literary writing: "… balls, yes, I almost cried, but then orientated by centuries, Christ's fuck-up, every sad and ripping thing, stupid, I leaped up and checked my only unripped pants not yet ripped from falling down at the knees while drunk."
The tools in his craftsman's bag are used to create an impression of artless spontaneity. How is this textual illusion obtained? By the use of the first-person singular; a vigorous street language with no recourse to dictionaries, complex words or intellectual concepts; by the use of first names or real names as though the reader were an acquaintance; by the cultivation of a no-bullshit approach, as though the speaker were too busy telling the truth to dilute it with high cultural values; and most effectively by jokes and asides to the reader: "(by the way … I realize I switch from present to past tense, and if you don't like it … ram a nipple up your scrotum—printer: leave this in)."
Bukowski flavors the lexical stew of Notes with misspellings, ungrammatical constructions, sentences with no verbs, repetitions, split infinitives, much slang and swearing, sexual innuendo and other linguistic ambiguities that enable him to splice sexuality, violence, nastiness and humor. By deliberately leaving in the text the sort of grammatical confusions common in speech but usually suppressed in written English, Bukowski is indicating that he wants to align writing with spoken rather than written conventions. The typing error is evidence of oral authenticity: "She thought my poems were the greatest thing since Black, no I mean Blake—and some of them are."
Surface indications to the contrary, Bukowski's fiction addresses itself to literate readers capable of appreciating the enormous number of irreverent references to writers, composers, painters and philosophers, and its slangy departures from polite literary expression. Which is why his writing goes down so well with university audiences, even though his humor subverts their educational values.
From John Fante, Bukowski took the idea that the streets of Los Angeles (not Hollywood) represented a viable fictional world; from Celine, an attitude of misanthropic extremism. But Ernest Hemingway, the most accessible modernist, provided Bukowski with a macho role model, an existential material, and an experimental style already pushed in the direction of American "speech." The aficionado of the L.A. Public Library pushed the stripped-down, denotative (classic) style of Hemingway into play, parody, and laughter. Bukowski echoed the aesthetics of the prose technician; either could have written this: "The hard life created the hard line and by the hard line I mean the true line devoid of ornament" (Bukowski, "He Beats His Women").
Hemingway (perhaps one should say Hamingway) stressed simplicity of expression and small, "honest" words (instead of abstractions) and action to keep the existential void at bay. As Hugh Kenner says, Hemingway's "bullfights and lion hunts were aesthetic gestures"; the Bukowski hero parallels this by going to the racetrack. This allows for a flippant treatment of existential states—exaltation and despair, hysteria and boredom. Hemingway's regard for the authenticity of words and feelings seeps through onto the Bukowski page. But Bukowski's humor makes the page more divided, fecund, ambiguous, and harder to pin down ideologically than other writers (say, Mailer) who recycle Hemingway's male mythology. How is one to read this faintly comic Hemingway echo? "I dropped my pants and shorts. She looked allright. I put the thing in. I put in what I had."
The function of his humor is sometimes to subvert cant, whole attitudes (e.g., sexism) that his stories, on another level, exploit. Sexual stereotypes—women as "all ass and breast," rapacious and available, a poor companion for the male compared to barroom buddies—hold sway throughout American fiction. At his best, Bukowski animates his stereotypes with great panache, investing "ideological unsoundness" with a liberating humor. A remarkable cultural allusiveness sends up machismo as well as alluding to and invoking it: "'Let's go out there and tell them to jam that horn up their ass,' said the kid, influenced by the Bukowski myth (I am really a coward) and the Hemingway thing and Humphrey B. and Eliot with his panties rolled, well. I puffed on my cigar. the horn went on."
Several Bukowski stories include fantasy dialogue with Hemingway's shade: "The Killers" parallels Hemingway's story of the same name; the opening of "Stop Staring at My Tits, Mister" parodies Hemingway in a crudely sexist mood; a rat-bearded professor bears a distinct resemblance in "Would You Suggest Writing As a Career?"; as a coup de grace, Henry Chinaski knocks out the aging Papa in "Class" ("You met a pretty good man, Mr. Hemingway").
The Hemingway legacy survives most vitally in the creation of a persona sometimes called "Bukowski" or "Henry Chinaski," what Barthes calls "a paper-author: his life is no longer the origin of his fictions but a fiction contributing to his work." Bukowski's artifice disguised as autobiography enables "Too Sensitive" to double-bluff the reader by ending on this note: "Meanwhile, I write about myself and drink too much. but you know that."
The intrusions of the author/narrator into the text are integral to many Bukowski stories, not merely winking to the reader but pointing up the text's artificial, fictive status. A playfulness clearly places Bukowski in the same camp as the postmoderns: "So, reader, let's forget Mad Jimmy for a minute and get into Arthur—which is no big problem—what I mean is also the way I write: I can jump around and you can come right along it won't matter a bit, you'll see."
Surrealism and existentialism enjoyed a delayed vogue in the American avant-garde of the 1950's and 1960's (Beat writers revived Artaud and Céline as major influences; The City Lights Journal made available the work of Michaux, Prévert, Genet, Artaud). While a rhythmic, semi-surreal language is sometimes evident, employing an illogical, dreamlike syntax ("but death was really boredom, death was really boredom, and even the tigers and ants would never know how and the peach would someday scream"), surrealism and existentialism's influence on Bukowski's fiction is most productive when reinvented, transmuted.
"The Gut-Wrenching Machine" is a comic commentary on authenticity, a concept crucial in existentialism's mythology. Criminals and tyrants supposedly live more authentically (that is, unhampered by moral codes, external authorities) than the solid, law-abiding citizen. Danforth and Bagley operate a wringer, turning out sufficiently pliable human material by squeezing the guts out, fitting their clients for "normal" life, the materialism of bourgeois society: "The ones labeled 'married with family' or 'over 40' lost their guts easiest."
Surrealism survives in Bukowski's bizarre characterization, the incorporation of fantastic events into a matter-of-fact narrative ("The Fuck Machine," "Six Inches"), always accompanied by quick-fire dialogue, endless one-liners, and a surrealism of the everyday; characters take onanistic photographs, fuck the phone, and fold complaining women into walls. Sexual explicitness is constantly undermined by grotesque details. With unexpected language reversals, deliberate anticlimaxes, and punchlines, Bukowski's stories point up their essential hero—the irreverent writer struggling with both the world and the word.
Self-referential stories about: being a writer on the reading circuit ("Would You Suggest Writing As a Career?"); a writer afflicted by minor fame ("Great Poets Die in Steaming Pots of Shit"); a writer continually interrupted in his attempts to complete a luridly improbable story ("Twelve Flying Monkeys Who Won't Copulate Properly"). Frustrated by two strangers pissing on his porch, Crazy Jack and two friends, a phone conversation with a maudlin poet, then by strangers offering a boat trip, the vomiting writer concludes: "We head out to sea where Conrad made it. To hell with Conrad. I'll take coke with bourbon in a dark bedroom in Hollywood in 1970, or whatever year you read this. The year of the monkey-orgy that never happened. The motor flits and gnashes at the sea; we plunge on toward Ireland. No, it's the Pacific. We plunge on toward Japan. To hell with it."
The frisson provided by cultural reference and tough-guy language is typically irreverent, disruptive, avant-garde; for Bukowski, the pleasure of the text is always laughter.
This section contains 1,781 words
(approx. 6 pages at 300 words per page)