Charles Bukowski came in to my life at just the right time. It’s as if fate had interjected. Life had a purpose and a perspective. I had a new friend. It all felt so unquestionable, so satisfying, so right.
I was introduced to Bukowski by a workmate during a period that I wasn’t happy with the job I had. (In fact, in retrospect, I don’t think I’ve been happy in most of the jobs I’ve had.) I was working an administration/office stint that was neither challenging nor rewarding. I felt stuck in a certain, stale immovable limbo. An ongoing sense of career dissatisfaction that filled the hours of 9 to 5 purely to pay the rent and cover the bills.
Only a few years before that I had been introduced to the glories of alcohol and its intoxicating, enlightening, free, and frequently dangerous effects: a pint of ale, a flagon of cider, a bottle of wine, whatever. I was a late started in terms of alcohol consumption (I was the only sober soul on my 18th and 21st birthdays). But from the moment that first cork was pulled and the second the amber-glowing pint of fermented apple juice hip my life and woke me up, I was a convert.
A relationship I was in was also starting to crumble beyond what should really have been considered tolerable or acceptable. What had been something resembling the vague apparition of blissful domesticity and personal contentment was melting down to a globulous, bubbling confection of itching dissatisfaction and daily unhappiness.
The lack of challenge and creativity in my soul-deadening employment and the tragic yet inevitable melancholy of falling out of (my first real) love led, unsuprisingly, led to the booze and the bottle. After all, I was employed, I had money, and when 5pm struck – an imaginary school beel ringing clear as crystal in my head – it was playtime. Night time. Extra-curricular. Beer time.
Bukowski combined all these elements in a way that was so powerful, personal, honest, real and quotidian that it was impossible for me to resist. His short stories, his prose, his poetry galvanised me, gave an anchor that plunged in the murky sea-bed of my own reality. A connection.
It was realistic, painful, with an often biting, brutal edge, yet always very heartfelt, very emotion, very human.
Bukowski was – and remains – a literary kindred spirit because he helped me survive some of the most dark and painful corners of my life. His words took me by the hand and bonded with me through a shared, common experience; disillusion, disappointment, loneliness, an existential numbness, a palpable apathy, the quest for the next drink, next bar, next woman, next drunken binge.
And yet there is always hope in Bukowski’s work. No matter how low, bad, disaffected, disempowered, angry, or just plain hacked off with every man, woman and beast in the world, there is always a glimmer of optimism. It may be a slightly jaded, cynical optimism, a never-let-the-bastards-get-the-better-of-you optimism, but it’s there. Perhaps not an overriding belief in the world – what with its onslaught of misery, death, misunderstanding and pain (physical, emotional, self-inflicted or otherwise), but a stoic, gutsy belief in himself, his abilities, his talent and his art.
And my own writing and desire to write – that innate compulsion to get your thoughts on paper – stemmed from those very emotions and sentiments.
Bukowski seemed to be exasperated with everything and everyone around him, yet was a precise and canny observer of their quirks, idiosynchrasies, and mannerisms. From sitting in bars – very often on his own, as did I – quaffing beers, people watching fuelled and inspired him, as it did me. The drunkenness gave a form, a focus and perspective; allowed you to see things in a passive, detached light.
Bukowski, to me, is the ultimate misunderstood optimist because he is an indefatigable, unflinching realist. And though he writes about the drunks, the whores, the homeless, the bums, and the outcasts of society, there is a unique and beguiling romanticism to his work; an alluring, seductive web that it spins. We may have experienced what Bukowski experienced. We may have known the kind of characters he knew. We may have felt as he felt. I know I certainly did at various points in my life.
And no matter how dark, depressing and gritty the subject matter or emotion, humour usually stuck its head over the wall. Light – even if only barely a flicker – was shone. Laughter, or at least a knowing, wry chuckle at the insanity of it all, could be had. The world is an unfathomable, crazy, messed up circus, and Bukowski knew it.
Though I’ve never attempted to psycho-analyse myself too intensely, perhaps at certain junctures in my history I was trying to emulate Bukwoski; vicariously live as he lived in that uncontrollable twister and all-consuming, reckless vortex that was his life. A times, when I was drunk, I was Bukowski; de-sensitized to it all yet paradoxically hyper-charged. The numbness generated by the drink elevating reality to another, untouchable level. My problems were the same as his – an endless succession of futile jobs, doomed relationships, an unsympathetic world, a raging, artstic fire. So why not synchronise his emotional beats with my own? A confluence of apparently similar outlooks and habits. His realities became my realities, his lifestyle of choice mine.
The artistic temperament is a contradictory one – creative, enriching, nourishing, and inspiring; but it’s also very often a self-doubting (frequently self-loathing), nihilistic, destructive one. It’s regularly fuelled by chronic dissatisfaction that often craves for something bigger, better and all-embracing, a yearning for something else (though, more often than not, it’s difficult to put your finger on exactly what). It’s never completely or wholly satisfied.
I can see those traits in Bukowski just as clearly and vividly as I can see them in myself.
To me, his writing is a shot of pure adrenaline: a wake-up call to the realities of the human condition. Terse, lean, gnawing at the gristle and marrow of life. An unromantic romantic.
Because of all these things, Bukowski has enriched my life – on a uniquely literary, candidly gutsy, blisteringly honest, devastatingly human level.
I just wish I could have bought him a beer.
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