Bukowski was a jerk…
Nick Cave, “We Call Upon The Author”
Reading Charles Bukowski is like eating, drinking, smoking, having sex, watching TV, sleeping, brushing teeth, cutting fingernails. Charles Bukowski is what you read when you don’t want to read. I didn’t. This was just the noise of the underground and two long months of traveling to and from work. Six of his novels, reviewed here in order of their publication.
His poetry was good. His short stories were hit and miss.
Post Office (1971)
This was my first Bukowski novel, so if there is any sentimental feeling in my heart reserved for this writer, it goes to Post Office. Initially, his writing seems refreshing and even mildly intriguing. Henry Chinaski, Bukowski’s alter-ego, is working at the post office. That’s all you need to know. Customers, women, booze. No epithets, no metaphors, just his no-nonsense style – note that I use the term ‘style’ very loosely. You almost won’t get bored: it all ends on page 208.
This was my last Bukowski novel, so it felt especially expendable. Of course they are more or less the same, his books, but this time I just didn’t care. Still enjoyable in its mindless, catatonic way, and contains what might be the ultimate line of his: “A man with a hangover should never lay flat on his back looking up at the roof of a warehouse”.
Drinking and fucking.
Ham On Rye (1982)
Of course: if you are going to read just one book by Charles Bukowski (wise move), it should be Ham On Rye. This is not so much essential in the grand scheme of things as the perfect distillation of the man’s concise, hard-boiled poetry (“summer was insolent and bitching”). From childhood onwards. Ham On Rye is grossly well-written. If you accept his terms, that is.
At his funniest. As ever, the scenes float by and you forget. If anything, Hollywood is Bukowski’s book on writing. Hollywood, too, hypocrisy and money, but essentially we get a close look at the way he wrote and approached writing. Drinking, horse-betting, yes, but this is Chinaski the writer. Or non-writer, whichever way you prefer. The book is about Bukowski being commissioned to write a screenplay for a movie (Barfly) and what it takes to do it in Hollywood. Again, autobiographical. Again, very brief: just 248 pages.
His last work, published months before his death. If you thought Bukowski was a good writer (he wasn’t), you will have to admit Pulp is a very poorly written book. If you thought Bukowski was a bad writer (again, he wasn’t), you will just be bored. This reads like a not particularly inspired Hammett/Chandler pastiche for people with short attention span. Fucked-up private detective working for Lady Death, looking for Red Sparrow. That sort of stuff. A few funny moments (buying beer in a bar) and a few unlikely philosophical paragraphs (I guess he meant it), but overall this is for the fans dying to get more. Be warned, however: there’s no Henry Chinaski here.
Chinaski died when Bukowski realised his own mortality. The whole world, remember, revolves around two things: sex and death. Bukowski/Chinaski swapped the latter for drinking. Or writing. Or whatever it was.