Over the holidays, I picked up a book that I hadn’t read in years. It was part of my college-era library, most of which didn’t make the move to Los Angeles and is still sitting in storage on the east coast. Visiting this collection is a bit like traveling back in time, because the authors of these books were among my closest friends for many years. I knew them better than I knew the people in my “real” life… or thought I did.
The book was Charles Bukowski’s Run with the Hunted (HarperPerennial, 1994), a posthumous collection of his best autobiographical work (fiction and poetry). Since Bukowski’s death in 1994, his faithful publisher has printed 13 books of his remaining poetry… more than were published during his lifetime. There’s no doubt that the poet is more popular in death than he was in life. (Perhaps because it’s easier to idolize him when he’s not hanging around to spit in your face for it...) Further proof is the plethora of biographies and occasional critical studies that have been written in the past decade or so. The biographies, from my perspective, are redundant when readers can simply turn to Run with the Hunted and the multitude of Bukowski's published works that it draws on... Nobody tells Bukowski’s story better than Bukowski. You can get a cliff notes version simply by reading pages 178 – 187 in Hunted: the author’s reaction to the death of his mother and the death of his father, followed by a staggering assertion of his own independence called “The Genius of the Crowd.”
So what, you ask, is Bukowski’s genius? He has his loyal fans, but to many he was simply an angry drunk. Re-reading some of his work, I asked the question of myself: Why was I so drawn to this man’s writing when I was in college? Was it just because I was a bit of an angry drunk myself? Maybe… but it’s more than that.
Bukowski remained, for most of his life, an angry drunk. It was only in his final years, when he became financially stable for the first time and got married for the first time, that he mellowed a bit. And then there were still periods of the old mania. Why was he so angry? Abusive father. Vacant mother. An extreme case of childhood acne that must have seemed like a curse from God, isolating him from his socially adept peers. This was a guy who watched his senior prom from outside the windows of his high school gymnasium, until a security guard sent him away. An outsider. A freak. A ghost.
But then who doesn’t feel that way at some point during their adolescence? What distinguishes Bukowski is that he remained an outsider by choice. As Russell Harrison points out in his book Against the American Dream: Essays on Charles Bukowski (Black Sparrow, 1994), the poet never bought into the American ideal. He didn’t want a job; he didn’t want a career; he didn’t want a house and two cars in the garage; he didn’t want a big screen TV; he didn’t want a wife and kids and family gatherings on the holidays. He didn’t trust any of that stuff. To him, it was a con.
He wanted a simple life, away from the crowd, in which to appreciate the little things that were most important to him. As always, he explains himself better than anyone else ever could:
… I’ve lived so often and so long with this hatred
my only freedom, my only peace is when I am away from
them, when I am anywhere else, no matter where –
some fat old waitress bringing me a cup of coffee
is in comparison
like a fresh wind blowing.
And there were plenty of other “fresh winds” in his life: John Fante, Knut Hamsun, Carson McCullers, James Thurber, Aldous Huxley, D.H. Lawrence, e.e. cummings, Conrad Aiken, Fyodor Dostoevsky, John Dos Passos, Ivan Turgenev, Maxim Gorky, H.D., Nietzsche, Schopenhauer, Steinbeck, Hemingway, Tu Fu, Li Po, Sherwood Anderson, Ezra Pound, Upton Sinclair, William Saroyan, Thomas Wolfe, Thomas Hardy, Guy de Maupassant, Denise McCluggage, Francois Rabelais, Beethoven, Mozart, Mahler… These people and their art made him feel alive, and he couldn’t imagine living for anything other than that kind of art. Not paychecks, not possessions, not even family. I understood that.
I am more compromising now than I was in college – by choice, not by necessity – but I still understand it. We have to do what makes us feel alive. If we aren’t honest with ourselves in that way, we crumble.
As Bukowski’s reputation grew – culminating, in his lifetime, with the production of the movie Barfly (1987) – he realized, more and more, that he wasn’t alone. The world was full of disenfranchised people (some by choice, others not) who felt the way he did. Then his writing began to turn outward, approaching cultural criticism. But it never quite made that transition, because Bukowski was a born poet, not a critic. In his poem “hug the dark,” he dismissed both politics and religion as alternatives to his art:
people who believe in politics
are like people who believe in god:
they are sucking wind through bent
And at the very end of his life, in a poem called “putrefaction," he ruminated on his ultimate inability to completely reconcile idealist dreams with the "real" world he saw around him:
something so sad
has hold of us
and we can’t even
Bukowski’s work pleads for a revolution – the creation of a world where art, rather than commerce, politics, and warped religion, sets the status quo. His writing was an unending personal effort to remain focused on the meaning he'd given to his own existence. He refused to settle for anything less, and therefore he had to withdraw from the noise and chaos of the world around him and become a ghost.
I am extremely grateful that this ghost is still around – moving like a whisper, a breath of fresh air, through my life.