Rating: 3 stars
There’s another reading challenge over on The Reader’s Room. I didn’t understand it, linked as it is to the March Madness college basketball tournament. I picked books based on what I wanted to clear off my TBR, without a thought of popularity or pairing them with teams that might make the final. But at least I will clear some of my book pile!
One of the books I chose was Howard Sounes’s biography of Charles Bukowski.
So far out of Bukowski’s books, I’ve read Post Office, Factotum, Ham on Rye, and Women. I enjoyed the first three on that list very much. I found Women a bit wearing. That said, I like the way Bukowski writes, particularly the economy of his prose, and I’m interested enough in these fictionalised autobiographies to want to know just how accurate and truthful they are. They feel pretty truthful.
I bought Howard Sounes’s biography of Bukowski 8 or 9 years ago, when I was in the midst of my Bukowski phase, but never got round to reading it until now.
Howard Sounes seems like he has his head screwed on. I liked his Preface, the way he introduced himself and the reason he wanted to write a biography of Charles Bukowski. I appreciated his candour about life as a “hack journalist” (his words) on a British tabloid newspaper, and his realisation that chasing stories at the behest of an editor and writing to a particular style guide wasn’t what he wanted to do any more. I found what he said about feeling resentment towards the day job that, while paying the bills, was getting in the way of the writing he really wanted to do interesting, and not a little challenging.
He did a good job of getting me on side with him as a writer, then.
The book is frank in its depiction of Bukowski’s alcoholism, and his treatment of women when drunk, from the off. The exploration of his childhood provides context for why a person might give in to alcoholism and mistreatment of women, but doesn’t try to apologise for his behaviour. This is not a book by someone who wants to make a fetish of Bukowski’s hard drinking lifestyle.
I like how the narrative is punctuated by Bukowski’s poetry to illustrate and illuminate what was going on in his life and how he channelled it into creativity.
Bukowski’s relationships are fascinating. On one level, he was an appalling shit to the women in his life – violent, verbally abusive, misogynist. And yet most of his relationships seemed to be on an equal footing. As much as he was taking advantage of his fame to sleep with as many women as he could, and as appallingly as he treated those he had long term relationships with, the women were equally as forceful. Many were taking advantage of his promiscuity to have an experience, some treated him as badly as he treated them. One in particular was in complete control of her life and their relationship. Strong women all, and women who chose to be with a particular man for their own reasons. It’s interesting to see that, even when obsessed with a woman, he only wanted to see her and be with her, he didn’t want to control her and keep her to himself. At least, not until his second marriage, and then only because he felt threatened by his wife’s religious affiliation.
Sounes notes that some of Bukowski’s more outré and contemptible opinions of women, that found expression in his pornographic writing, never made it into his novels. In his novels, he loves women. He doesn’t understand them or know how to relate to them, but he loves them. What comes across in the biography is that some of Bukowski’s worst excesses were often posturing, to shore up his public persona.
Also interesting is the context Sounes provides to Bukowski’s chronicling of working class life in mid-20th century America. This aspect of Bukowski’s writing is what makes him an important writer, in my opinion. To express the monotonous drudge of blue collar work with the humour and insight that Bukowski had is a wonderful thing.