Book Review: CHARLES BUKOWSKI by Barry Miles
Having spent an inordinate amount of time waiting for this book to arrive, due to the particularly poor services at an Amazon second hand bookshop, I was slightly disappointed when I finally got round to reading it.
Being something of a ‘Chinanski-ist’ (as I understand Bukwoski referred to us fans) it just didn’t feel like I was getting anything new from it. In his preface Miles does make some allusions to his personal experience of meeting Bukowski, and he does have some – very, very, brief – quotes from people in his life, but this can feel like a summary of his stories and poetry intertwined with some pop-psychology.
Of course, this is the problem with writing a biography of a writer whose main source of inspiration was his own life. Rather than getting these stories from the horses’ mouth, and in the ‘signature-Hank-style’, we get a rehash from a second party who neither knew him very well or had anything new to tell us. ‘Ham on Rye’ is told almost verbatim, as are a number of the stories in ‘Women’ (With the real names included of course).
However, this might be a bit unfair. As Bukowski admitted on a number of occasions 95% of his stories might be true but that does leave the other 5%. And as Miles points out it is probably nearer 50%. He was a great elaborator and borrower of stories. The stories of his mythical sexual prowess are highly doubtful.
For instance, for some time he wrote articles for a number of porn mags in order to make ends meet and one of the expectations of these articles was that (kind of obviously) they had sexual content. As such, Bukowski would write a story and then insert the necessary fictional sex scene in order to make it appropriate for the publication.
And in this ways Miles does succeed to a certain extent in providing the truth behind the bollocks. He manages to narrate the events of a story and then puts them in a more realistic context. Unfortunately the result of this can be depressing for any hardcore fan.
While I certainly appreciate that the life of Bukowski in his books was not glamorous it does have a certain romantic appeal to a certain kind of young man. And whenever you read the truth behind the stories it can be heartbreaking to see this noble loner of LA as the dull, mean, old drunk he was. This is particularly clear when it comes to the promiscuous life he brags about in his writing.
While I have mentioned this above I do think that so much of his fictional persona revolves around his sex life that finding him to be so conservative with women for most of his life was a shock. The reason for this being that in his writing Bukowski is the loner- detached, and more frequently than not, scathing of the society he has been forced into – and this is related through the sexual congress he pursues. It is base and empty – void of emotion or any passion. The best word is probably animalistic. This makes it a very different approach than any other I have read.
The fact that much of these accounts are fiction turns them from compelling accounts of emotionless sex into, well, bad writing. It feels as though he has just not been able to express the true feeling of his sexual encounters.
More to the point I had no idea how mean he could be. Throughout this book you see him turning from loyal and heart-felt friend to worst enemy – almost in the blink of an eye. Best friends who have supported his work all along the line are derided and humiliated in his work the minute they fall out of favour. Whether this was some form of personal defence against his peers or just selfish cruelty I’m not sure but he does not come away from it well.
And I have to admit that Miles does get some good stuff in here. The meeting with John Fante near the end of his life is well told and very engaging. And the amount of time devoted to Jane, his first love, is just what is required. Not giving her the attention she deserved would have been a failure to appreciate the unique role she played in his life and in his relationship with all other women in the future.
It also feels somewhat rushed towards the end. Both ‘Hollywood’ and ‘Pulp’ are dealt with tremendously quickly. This surprised me because both not only merit a lot of attention but would seem to work within the model Miles’ has set out throughout the rest of his book.
‘Hollywood’ is an account of the writing and filming of ‘Barfly’, a movie starring Mickey Rourke and written by Bukowski about his own early life as a poet drunk in the city. The book is only a slightly veiled biographical account of this period and yet, unlike with ‘Ham on Rye’ in which Mile’s uses the text to its absolute narrative possibilities, he blazes through it over a couple of pages. The failure to properly look at ‘Pulp’ surprised me because Bukoski was writing this so late in his life. More than anything it is a metaphorical examination of his own mortality – a subject which Mile’s spends some time examining in the later poetry but hardly at all within his stories.
But what really annoyed me was the fact that these are two of his best books. And I don’t think I’m alone in this. It just feels as though by this point Miles got bored and wanted to move on to something else.
This is a shame because it is one area in particular I am really interested in. By this point he had settled down. He was drinking less (and then none) and learning to appreciate quieter and more reflective side of life. He showed great affection to his wife and their 9 pet cats. Further towards the end he was even learning about Buddhism- Bukowski and Buddhism! Just think! To have seen these life changing few years would have been brilliant. But all we get are a few sped-off pages.
No doubt some of the problems in this biography are due to a lack of sources outside Bukowski’s own writing. This is clear from the obvious lifting of material from ‘Ham on Rye’ but also from the lack of personal quotes within. I noticed that, on the whole, even those personal accounts he did find were actually lifted from other Bukowski biographies. More than anything it just felt like laziness on Mile’s part and a great disappointment.
However, if your looking to get into Bukowski this might well be a good place to start. It gives you a good overview of his life. I would even go as far as saying that it feels like a ‘reader’ of his literary career rather than a biography. But this is not one for the fans.
- Charles Bukowski and the Secret to Immortal Writing (copyblogger.com)
- Reading Tonight: Elvis and Charles Bukowski (slog.thestranger.com)