Even when I was younger I never really got Charles Bukowski. This was a point of irritation for a literature mad adolescent determined to find hidden truth buried in the words of paperbacks I found in libraries or second hand shops. Bukowski, even in the late eighties or early nineties, was one of those literary rites of passage – a discovery you were supposed to make on your own just as everyone else was. To an extent I had gone through this before, first with Steinbeck and then with Hunter Thompson. Steinbeck was a writer with a merciless but sympathetic eye for the harsh landscape of poor lives. Grapes of Wrath was pushed on us in school, the first serious writer many of us read in fact, but I always struggled. Not with the content, nor with the powerful parable like nature of his writing, but with his voice. It was the saccharine condescension of a long time primary school teacher talking to other adults and no longer able to converse in the language of grown ups. It wasn’t deliberate but it lingered in the cadence nevertheless.
With Thompson, a writer I grew to love and then draw away from, it was a different thing altogether. A great literary talent who gradually fell into a parody of himself. Everyone starts with Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – an immediate sugar hit of a novel swathed in chaos; the child of an unhinged imagination deeply in love with the hellfire language of the south and the King James bible. And it’s no coincidence that his best work, the writing that stays in the mind decades later, were the early books and collections of articles. Hells Angels remains one of the classic works of American reportage, as does ..On The Campaign Trail ’72 which redefined political writing, turning it into a crazed spectator sport where people gambled away their souls on the highest stakes, throwing down promises, hollow words and hollower deeds as chips on the green baize of public opinion.
I don’t think, excepting a handful of articles scattered over the rest of his career, Thompson ever came close to reaching those same heights. He fell in love with the fiction of the Good Doctor that he himself created and the rest of the world began to demand. Coming to the later work was a crushing disappointment. Although there were still at the heart of his work the sentiments expressed in the simple statement of intent given in his novel The Rum Diaries that he was ‘..putting the bastards of the world on notice: I do not have your best interests at heart’, there was a palpable feeling that, creatively, he had begun to tread an easier road. It was one where he could indulge the drug addled, gun mad pantomime dame that the world seemed to want, and surround himself with rock star buddies and those who would swear he was still relevant.
But with Bukowski I’m not so sure there was the same thrill and understanding of how powerful, how exiting and how life changing language could be. I’m still not entirely sure what his continuing fame is predicated upon. Martin Amis once said of Graham Greene that the reason Greene is so well loved is that he is one of the first serious literary writers that we tend to encounter and that we never forget our first love. With Bukowski I think there is some sort of similar magic being worked. Does anyone reaching Bukowski later in life feel the same thing, or is his writing a confidence trick pulled on an inherent adolescent need to rebel? Are older readers more inured against these stories, these adventures in the guts of failure? Years after reading his novels for the first time I came across a few interviews with him and was struck not by his wisdom but by a sleazy cunning with which excuses were reworked into philosophy. It did not bring me into the fold.
I’ve had old friends rave about his poetry, and there is perhaps something in them that shows maybe the old soak had a bit more going than it would at first seem. All the same, it is telling that among my friends he is the favourite poet of people who don’t read poetry. His novels though were a conveyor belt of repetition. Bukowski was not the first person to write the same book over and over again and he would not be the last. His ‘powerfully’ autobiographical work seemed little more than a procession of ‘get up, get drunk, get fired, get laid’ in which little space remained for anything else. Bukowski claimed that, bumming in a library one day, he had come across the novels of John Fante, a writer active in the 30s who later became a scriptwriter for pulp TV, and that the discovery of Fante’s writing became Bukowski’s own Road To Damascus moment, the point at which he himself began to write.
Fante’s work, though, is characterized by a hunger, a desperate need to explain and document the world around him and to relate it to his own experiences. Some might well say that this, exactly this, is what Bukowski brings to his own work. And he does, mostly, but it lacks the transcendence. Bukowski’s great failure as a novelist is that he never learned, nor seemed to understand, the need to translate his poetry to his fiction. Where Fante was the prototype of the young Updike, the young Roth, Bukowksi became a down and out Donleavy, occupying the same literary space but lacking the wild, violent love affair Donleavy had with language.
I’m aware, as I write this, of the place Bukowski occupies in the pantheon of counter-culture heroes. Problem is that I’ve never put much stock in the counter-culture. The only counter to culture comes from the philistinism of dead thought and hatred of anything that cannot be adequately and quickly explained in the pages of the Daily Mail, or broadcast, spittle flecked and wide eyed, on Fox. Culture just is and fringe elements cannot be shielded from comparison with more established forms by stint of artificial separation. When we stand his novels shoulder to shoulder with other writers who scoured the depths Bukowski does not bear up. He documents but he shows little interest in explaining. In fact, he shys away from asking the awkward questions. On their own, in isolation, Bukowski’s novels might seem to reverberate with truth born of authenticity. But authenticity in itself is no guarantee of truth. Truth is a concept that requires self examination, of the brutal understanding of the soul. It is not enough to know what happened, we must know why. This is the heart of my problem: If the author does not ask the questions, why should the reader? If the reader does not ask, they will remain unchanged. And to remain unchanged is, I think, a failure of literature.