Charles Bukowski - Biography

It’s a stereotype, sure, but the hard-drinking, hard-living, hard-fighting, skirt-chasing writer has its origins in fact, and when it comes to living hard in every sense of the word, American author Charles Bukowski (1920-1994) had few equals. Furthermore, he examined the unseemly, squalid conditions of his own life with unflinching, unyielding detail. If Ernest Hemmingway was the ultimate he-man extrovert, dashing and handsome, cavorting with the Parisian Modernists, flinging himself into war zones, and crawling up mountain slopes, Bukowski was a self-loathing, pock-marked introvert, struggling with the banality of existence, the monotony of work, and the totalities of alcoholism. And while Hemmingway traipsed through landscapes of exotica – Republican Spain, Asia; the Caribbean; Kilimanjaro – Bukowski’s universe sprawled across the squalid streets and barroom floors of a decrepit Los Angeles. Bukowski upended every sunny convention of Southern California as the land of milk and honey; his LA was a grim realm of monochromatic desperation, bleaker than Dashiell Hammett’s. Still, beneath it all, Bukowski was an epic creative force, writing six novels, a screenplay, over a hundred short stories and thousands of poems. His lifetime of writing filled more than sixty books, and despite his death, Bukowski lives on in several spoken-word recordings.

He was born Heinrich Karl Bukowski in the small town of Andernach, in the Rhineland region of Germany; his mother was a German; his father a US serviceman. When he was three, the family moved to the US, and in an atmosphere of post-war prejudice against Germans, Heinrich Karl was anglicized to Henry Charles. Yet Bukowski was still tormented and bullied by schoolmates. He was an outcast from the start, and the severe acne that he developed as an adolescent didn’t help matters much. He began drinking in his early teens, and didn’t stop. He studied journalism at Los Angeles City College. After that, Bukowski worked intermittently at menial jobs, living in poverty, writing poetry on the side; in his early thirties, after serious problems with his health, he relented and got a job at the post office. He worked there for nearly twenty years. He had a few failed marriages. In 1969, Bukowski was offered a deal by the owner of Black Sparrow Press: For a monthly fee of one hundred dollars, he would quit his day job to be a full-time writer. Bukowski decided he would rather write and starve than work another day at the post office.

Bukowski immediately wrote his first novel. Post Office (1971 Black Sparrow Press) is a thinly veiled autobiography, in which alter ego Henry Chinaski drinks, gambles, womanizes, and drinks, all while working at a job he utterly despises. It’s a first-person narrative that drips with black humor and cynicism, and it brought Bukowski national fame. He would publish five more novels, all in a similar vein: Factotum (1975 Black Sparrow Press); Women (1978 Black Sparrow Press); Ham On Rye (1982 Black Sparrow Press); Hollywood (1989 Black Sparrow Press); and Pulp (1994 Black Sparrow Press). He also wrote the screenplay for the 1984 film Barfly (1984 Black Sparrow Press), in which his proxy was played by actor Mickey Rourke. Bukowski would also compile numerous collections of short stories, including Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions, and General Tales of Ordinary Madness (1972 Black Sparrow Press); Hot Water Music (1983 Black Sparrow Press); and Tales of Ordinary Madness (1983 Black Sparrow Press).

Beneath all the bluster and posturing, Bukowski did have the soul of a poet, and poetry poured out of him in dozens of volumes. Some of the most acclaimed titles are: Play the Piano Drunk Like a Percussion Instrument Until the Fingers Begin to Bleed a Bit (1979 Black Sparrow Press); You Get So Alone at Times That It Just Makes Sense (1986 Black Sparrow Press); and The People Look Like Flowers At Last (­2007 Black Sparrow Press). Also beneath the bluster was a consummate showman with gobs of personal charisma, as evidenced by several spoken-word outings. King of Poets (1997 Chinaski Records) captures him in New Orleans, in 1970, and is a crucial document of his “early” career (he was 50). Bukowski Reads His Poetry (1994 Takoma) is full of obscene hilarity. The best of the lot is Hostage (1994 Rhino), in which the audience is the hostage, and Bukowski is the kidnapper. Stockholm Syndrome ensues, as the author, obviously drunk, works the crowd into a celebratory frenzy, as he charms with a recitation that is depraved, bawdy, uproarious, frequently moronic, and, at its essence, elegantly uplifting. All poetry readings should be as much fun.
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