My rating: 4 of 5 stars
There is something about reading a novel within 48 hours: you fully inhabit another person’s life for a very brief period of time. It is also quite intense. 200 pages in one afternoon. That is often intense. But this seems to be the way I approach Charles Bukowski’s writing. The last of his stories that I read, and my first, was Hot Water Music. I found it on a shelf while working at a hostel in Rome, Italy over ten years ago; and I read it within 48 hours. This is not to note that I couldn’t put it down; oh no, I put it down. A few times, in fact. But I picked the book back up soon after it hit the floor.
Bukowski’s writing possesses a strange allure for me. I can’t quite decide what it is that attracts me to his writing, but I do know that my liking is only for a brief period. And while I do not think one should imbibe too much Bukowski—it is like being drunk on 150-proof misanthrope—a little from time to time is good. He creates well-reasoned and well-observed notions about America’s class system. And there is not a fear about his masculinity. I like that. I think that particular trait of an author or protagonist is hard to find in our postmodern writing.
Many of our (American) male authors find it difficult to write about sex, love, or basic attraction from a patriarchal, masculine, what-have-you standpoint. It is an understandable fear. But it seems that one must smoke Marlboro’s, possess numerous acne scars, and have an abusive childhood in order to make such patriarchal observations. Without these boorishly virile traits in an author, quite often, reading a male protagonist’s coming of age novel that does not include allusions to a burgeoning interest in masturbation in all its illusions, fears and fantasies is false at its very core.
Don’t get me wrong: I am not incredibly interested in reading about Holden Caulfield‘s discovery of his erect penis, but after reading Bukowski, all those existential fantasies Caulfield imagines seem so false and pretentious. But, again, too much of either seems dangerous to me.
There is a lot of hate in this novel. And this is why I strongly recommend not reading a lot of Bukowski’s work. Too much of that can turn one’s outlook. I only write that because of something unique in Bukowski’s writing: I do not feel any pity for his protagonist, Henry Chinaski. And that profoundly bemuses me. Why is that? He is beaten severely—of which we are given great detail. He is ostracized by all his classmates and on a daily basis is forced to fight or be beaten. He is beaten at home, in school, by the kids, by the teachers; his friends are beaten at home, in school, etc. and yet, I end up feeling very little sympathy for him. Is it because it is not real enough? I don’t think so. I think because it is too real. And mostly because the reader gets the feeling that Chinaski (and Bukowski, if I may extend myself) doesn’t need or want your sympathy.
So then, why write?
I think it is because Bukowski is so unflinchingly honest in his writing—even in his fiction, even in his lies. Maybe because that is where he can finally tell an honest story in an audaciously bold and benevolently destructive manner. And people listen to him. Maybe that is the only place people do listen to him. Yeah, maybe.
I always picture Bukowski as the guy at the end of the bar whose loud and lewd stories possess grit, danger, and a bit of magic; only, you don’t want to get to close to him because you are afraid you could smell the years of whiskey on his breath and in his sweat. The difficult part is that you will never be him, but you want to be that tough, that gritty, that courageous, that ballsy. And the other difficult part is that you hate him for being that way in the first place; for surviving that punishing life for so long.