Charles Bukowski | Critical Review by Norman Weinstein

This literature criticism consists of approximately 5 pages of analysis & critique of Charles Bukowski.
This section contains 1,449 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Norman Weinstein

SOURCE: "South of No North: Bukowski in Deadly Earnest," in Review of Contemporary Fiction, Vol. 5, No. 3, Fall 1985, pp. 52-55.

In the following review, Weinstein examines the similarities in Bukowski's short story collection to the fiction of Hemingway.

In no other collection of Bukowski's fiction does Ernest Hemingway's ghost play such a major role. Even the book title, with that flatly articulated oxymoron reminiscent of Men without Women and Winner Take Nothing, alerts the reader to the Hemingway presence. The Bukowski/Hemingway connection is one riddled with complex ambivalences. I trust this brief reading of South of No North might indicate a few dimensions of that knot.

A first reading of Bukowski's collection evoked thoughts of his consciously creating a parody of the Hemingway style. Consider this excerpt from Bukowski's "Loneliness":

"Maybe I'm no good at sex," said Edna, "maybe that's why I'm alone." She took another drink from the glass.

"Each of us is, finally, alone," said Joe.

"What do you mean?"

"I mean, no matter how well it's going sexually or love-wise or both, the day arrives when it's over."

There is the identical sound of simply cadenced American speech bonded by conversational syntax, created through a severely limited (though far from limiting) vocabulary of the archetypal "Ordinary Joe." This likeness to Hemingway becomes even more striking when we put the above in relationship to this excerpt from Hemingway's Death in the Afternoon: "Madam, all stories, if continued far enough, end in death, and he is no true story teller who keeps that from you."

However hard-boiled Hemingway sounded in his bullfight epic, Bukowski is determined to outdo Papa. Bukowski's sense of competition with Hemingway's talent humorously borrows the same metaphor Hemingway uses to describe his competitive relationship to master fiction writers from the past. Here is Hemingway bragging to his publisher with mock modesty and macho abandonment: "Am a man without any ambition, except to be champion of the world, I wouldn't fight Dr. Tolstoi in a 20 round bout because I know he would knock my ears off … Mr. Henry James I would just thumb him once the first time he grabbed and then hit him once where he had no balls and ask the referee to stop it." Bukowski's "Class" is little more than the author's dream of getting into a boxing ring—literally!—with Hemingway. Of course Bukowski gleefully celebrates his raw powers: "I had Hemingway up against the ropes. He couldn't fall. Each time he started to fall forward I straightened him with another punch. It was murder. Death in the Afternoon." Yet a reading of Bukowski here should transcend parody of Papa. Note the turn "Class" takes after the narrator knocks Hemingway out:

I got dressed and then Ernie regained consciousness.

"What the hell happened?" he asked.

"You met a pretty good man, Mr. Hemingway," somebody told him.

"You're a good man, Papa. Nobody wins them all."

I shook his hand. "Don't blow your brains out."

Even the flippancy of the narrator's last line can't erase the sense of tender respect (rare in this book) that Bukowski feels for Papa.

"No Neck and Bad As Hell" is the other story in South of No North where Hemingway's ghost becomes reanimated and duels with Henry Chinaski-cum-Charles Bukowski. One of the narrator's drunken reveries provides the setting; he imagines Hemingway at his local bar saying to him:

"You talk like a character out of early Huxley."

"I think you're wrong. I'm desperate."

"But," said Hemingway, "men become intellectuals in order not to be desperate."

And the verbal sparring continues until (naturally) the narrator wins. But Bukowski is willing to let Hemingway draw some blood in the fray with that stab about Bukowski's roots in Huxley.

Despite these instances of Bukowski triumphing over Hemingway, one can't help but note Bukowski's humility before the Hemingway genius in "This Is What Killed Dylan Thomas," a thinly disguised account of Bukowski's first public reading in San Francisco: "We walk across the street to an Italian cafe. Marionetti is back with the guy from the S.F. Chronicle who wrote in his column that I was the best short story writer to come along since Hemingway. I tell him he is wrong; I don't know who is the best since Hemingway but it isn't H.C. I'm too careless. I don't put out enough effort. I'm tired."

These are the examples from South of No North where Hemingway is directly evoked in Bukowski's stories. However, the overwhelming machismo sensibility of a Hemingway constantly punctuates Bukowski's fictions. "A Man" is the Bukowski story which states the machismo most starkly:

"I'm a man, baby, understand that?"

"I know you're a man, George."

"Here, look at my muscles!" George stood up and flexed both of his arms. "Beautiful, eh, baby? Look at that muscle! Feel it! Feel it!"

Constance felt one of his arms. Then the other.

"Yes, you have a beautiful body, George."

"I'm a man. I'm a dishwasher but I'm a man, a real man."

The character's assertion of masculine dignity in spite of the lowness of his occupation is another factor which links Bukowski to Hemingway. Both authors assert masculine dignity as a necessary rite-of-passage technique in order to survive integrally within an unjust and emasculating socioeconomic system. The ruthless drive to "act like a man" that all Hemingway and Bukowski characters share leads to a distrust in both authors of any political solutions. So Hemingway writes in a letter to Paul Romaine:

I'm no goddamned patriot nor will I swing to left or right.

Would as soon machine gun left, right, or center any political bastards who do not work for a living.

Bukowski voices a similar disgust in "Politics" where he describes his disillusionment with student politics at L.A. City College where he assumes a pro-Hitler stance with fellow students simply because he is bored with their pious and unfelt antifascist platitudes. Bukowski's cynicism about countercultural protest on the Left is brutally symbolized by red ants crawling over the tattered remains of an abandoned protest flag in "Something about a Viet Cong Flag."

Characters in Bukowski and Hemingway are the rugged individualists who defy the utopian schemes of all ideologues. Male character armor held firm by a swaggering boastfulness assures survival. Bukowski characteristically develops this stance in "Bop Bop against That Curtain": "There weren't any public funds for playgrounds. We were so tough we played tackle football in the streets all through football season, through basketball and baseball seasons and on through the next football season. When you get tackled on asphalt, things happen. Skin rips, bones bruise, there's blood, but you get up like nothing was wrong." This could be Hemingway's Nick Adams speaking, the identical will-to-survive reinforced through a manly toughness. And it is worth remembering how Hemingway also spoke of the importance of an unhappy childhood in the making of a writer. His letters to F. Scott Fitzgerald strongly asserted the usefulness of getting "hurt" by life, of knowing how to use personal pain as a wellspring for fiction which transcends the personal.

All of this emphasis in Hemingway and Bukowski has a consequence in terms of the development of female characters. Hemingway's fictions have been expertly critiqued by a number of feminist critics (most vitally by Judith Fetterley in The Resisting Reader) who have accused Hemingway of having women with no human dimensions in his works. This criticism can, perhaps should, be even more ruthless in Bukowski's case. Women characters in South of No North are little more than sexual fetishes, replaceable by mute mannequins if we believe the narrator in "Love for $17.50." Yet both Hemingway and Bukowski can exhibit a boyishly fetching and worshipful sentimentality toward women in their stories. Men without women, in both Hemingway's and Bukowski's worlds, seem reduced to a most base condition.

Bukowski's characters don't even attempt to understand women; the tone in these stories is antipsychological. Once again, this posture echoes Hemingway. The puzzling war between the sexes can no more be ended through psychoanalysis than through political reorganizations. The writer's job is to state honestly the facts concerning sexual warfare, neither more nor less.

Call this stance anti-intellectualism in Hemingway and Bukowski. But I would rather tag this position as a form of adolescence, what depth psychologist James Hillman labels as a fix in the "Puer-Senex" complex. There is a great deal of the eternal youth in both writers, a refusal to "grow up." Gertrude Stein never forgot twenty-three-year-old Hemingway coming into her parlor crying that he was too young to be a father to his newly born son. Bukowski and his characters live in a world without parental responsibilities, are unanchored drifters looking for singular moments of love, love which never lasts.

Is it not precisely this adolescence of vision which makes Hemingway and Bukowski the quintessential American story writers of our age?

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This section contains 1,449 words
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Buy the Critical Review by Norman Weinstein
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