Paul Kareem Tayyar
On Second Thought: Reflections on Charles Bukowski
It’s winter break for me, which means this is the rare week where I don’t need to sit up re-reading “A Clean Well Lighted Place” or “Babylon Revisited” in preparation for the next day’s class, or putting together essay questions for my students about the dominant themes in Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” It’s a great feeling, and I have found myself during these free nights reading a lot of Charles Bukowski, something which has been a bit of a surprise for me, considering I have mostly avoided Bukowski’s work over the past several years. I think this is mostly due to the fact that as the Demigod of the Los Angeles/Long Beach literary nexus, the unofficial Poet Laureate of the City of the Fallen Angels and its surrounding areas, the Drunken Prophet of the traffic-clogged freeways and thankless, underpaying wage slaves just happy to live near the beach, Bukowski’s work had been so hyped that I figured it would be impossible for him to live up to the “Genius” label that fellow writers and readers alike have bestowed upon him.
But as is often the case in the land of a thousand failed sitcoms, I could not have been more wrong.
This past Monday night I came across a Bukowski piece in a fantastic anthology edited by Ann Charters about the 1960s called The Portable Sixties Reader. The Bukowski selection was a short prose excerpt taken from 1969’s Notes of a Dirty Old Man, and it was nestled in alongside selections written by some of my literary heroes (Lawrence Ferlinghetti Diane Wakoski) among them, and so I figured maybe it was time to give Bukowski a shot. The piece was classic Bukowski: a down-on-his-luck Bukowski is working the graveyard shift at a gas station where his primary responsibility is to be willing and able to fire the shotgun stashed beneath the counter if any robber tries to hold up the place. The narrative has the usual Bukowski props—hookers-with-hearts-of-gold, clipped, Hemingway-esque snatches of dialogue, a subtle, dry wit—but it was the story’s final paragraph, where Bukowski begins to weep at the news that his former employer (who recently fired old Buk for letting the hookers have their run of the station) has died that so moved me I almost started to cry myself. Jesus, I had no idea he had this kind of heart, I thought to myself. No wonder everyone out here loves him.
And so I have spent the last two nights tearing through selections of his work that are included in the anthologies of poetry and fiction I have sitting around the house—books like Garrison Keillor’s wonderful Good Poems collections, Edward Field’s excellent A Geography of Poets—and I find that in each one of these books Bukowski’s stuff is as good as anyone’s. This realization has made me think that my several years’ resistance to Bukowski had a lot more to it than my simply being tired of hearing his name bandied about by breathless creative writing students. It probably also had something to do with my own prejudices as a reader and writer, particularly for the kind of enduring mythos that always seems to surround the hard-living, hard-drinking, eternally down on their luck souls like Bukowski, Kerouac, Cassady, et al—the sense that true authenticity is the exclusive domain of those who can’t keep a job or a woman and who never met a drink or a smoke or roadside motel they didn’t like. Why do these guys get to corner the market on authenticity? I would ask myself. Is a man any less authentic if he can hold a steady job, stay sober, keep off the smokes and treat a woman well? These past two nights of this impromptu, informal Charles Bukowski seminar of mine has made me face my own insecurities. Specifically, I have been guilty of doing exactly what I always tell my students to consistently avoid: don’t hold the artist’s personal lifestyle against him (or her) when reading their work (unless it’s Ezra Pound, that racist, anti-Semitic jerk). No, Bukowski’s work deserves better than that. The truth is that the guy was an incredible talent, and that his greatest stories and poems are almost as good as anything that Ernest Hemingway ever wrote. And the fact that Bukowski is buried less than an hour from where I live and that, when he was alive, he drove the same freeways that I do every day, means he’s family, one of ours, a torchbearer and chronicler of the Southern California that I love. In other words, I should stop holding his imperfections against him and start defending his work against the Eastern establishment who think the only good things that have ever come out of Southern California were film noir and Magic Johnson.