Most of Charles Bukowski’s writing examines his life as a drunk, drifter, gambler, loner, and unemployed and unemployable creature of habit. As noted in many documentaries, biographies, and accounts of Bukowski’s life, however, he also had a gentle side. As much as he wrote about booze, horse racing, failure, hesitation, and loss, he wrote twice as much about love, genuineness, literature, and music. The themes that Bukowski explored throughout his career remained consistent; in his own estimation, the artist’s goal is to explore the same themes eternally.
Bukowski—perhaps even more than writers J. D. Salinger and Ernest Hemingway—also was interested in exposing phoniness. Considering that Bukowski’s characters are often drunks (his alter ego and antihero Henry Chinaski), it could be difficult to believe that Bukowski was deeply concerned with bad manners. However, a close examination of his work reveals a writer who is obsessed with order, ritual, and kindness.
Though he is often associated with the writers of the Beat generation, Bukowski felt he was following in the footsteps of the writers and musicians he greatly admired, including Pound, Faulkner, Hemingway, Jeffers, Fante, Fyodor Dostoevski, Ludwig van Beethoven, Johannes Brahms, and Gustav Mahler. Furthermore, his writing contains biting criticism of his contemporaries, including Beat writers Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac.
Bukowski worked a succession of odd jobs, had long periods of unemployment, and was a chronic gambler, but he did hold a steady post-office job for many years before devoting his life full time to writing. Bukowski wrote Post Office, his first novel, in three weeks after quitting his job as a postal clerk. The novel tells the story of Henry Chinaski, Bukowski’s alter ego, and his time spent as an employee of the U.S. Postal Service. Chinaski, like Bukowski, works for years as a mail carrier, quits, survives by gambling on horses, and returns to the post service as a mail sorter. He quits again and then pursues his career as a writer. Bukowski’s style is sharp, precise, and economical, and the novel is a hilarious and vulgar representation of a life lived “on the skids.”
Factotum continues the adventures of Chinaski. Unemployed, hungover, trying to make it as a writer, Chinaski falls for Jan, another barfly. The novel traces the course of their relationship and documents Chinaski’s failures in work, love, and life. Director Bent Hamer’s 2005 film adaptation of the novel, a film starring Matt Dillon as Chinaski, was a great success, bringing the novel to a new generation of readers.
Bukowski, in later life, became obsessed with writing about women. When he became a successful cult figure, women threw themselves at him, aiming—it seemed—for him to write about their adventures—and write he did. The hilarious novel Women is a semiautobiographical novel that documents Bukowski’s unlikely rise as a ladies’ man. The book is also, in part, a reaction against feminist critics who argue that Bukowski was sexist and misogynist. He denied the claims, however, and wrote with startling frankness about prostitutes, rape, and twisted relationships. His serious writing, however, reveals a gentleness toward women, especially the women he loved. Women is, primarily, a comic examination of the dangers of fame and a rejection of salvation through promiscuity.
Ham on Rye
Widely considered Bukowski’s finest achievement, Ham on Rye details the coming-of-age of Chinaski in Los Angeles during the Great Depression. The novel is a semiautobiographical take on Bukowski’s own experiences as a child growing up in Los Angeles. Dealing with an abusive father and a serious outbreak of acne, Chinaski manages to survive as an outsider.
Chinaski’s family bears a striking resemblance to Bukowski’s own family. (He rarely did much to veil characters based on real people in his work.) The Chinaski family includes a loving German mother, a father who is harsh and cruel to his wife and son, and a grandfather who is a beatific drunk. The novel offers readers a glimpse into Bukowski’s early romanticism of people who exist in the world as intruders and outcasts. Chinaski’s rough youth makes way for an adulthood paved with drunkenness, failure, and rotten relationships. Acomic masterpiece, Ham on Rye is a sort of response to Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye (1951), a book that Bukowski probably detested.
Bukowski’s fourth novel, Hollywood, is an examination of his own brief time in the film business, a semiautobiographical comic take on film director Schroeder’s adaptation of Bukowski’s screenplay Barfly. The novel is a searing indictment of Hollywood phoniness, a dark take on what it takes (and costs, both monetarily and spiritually) to make a film. Bukowski is critical of Schroeder, and the film’s stars—Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway—as well as other Hollywood figures: lawyers, producers, and other directors and actors. The novel again features Bukowski’s alter ego, a now married Chinaski, as he mocks egotistical Hollywood phonies.
In his last novel, Pulp, Bukowski writes an homage to what he calls “bad writing.” The novel is a spoof of the hard-boiled detective genre, and it is Bukowski’s only novel to not feature Chinaski as protagonist. Instead, the main character is Nick Belane, a Los Angeles private detective cut from the same cloth as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and Dashiell Hammett’s Sam Spade. Belane is hired to locate something called the Red Sparrow. In his travels, he encounters Lady Death, a space alien named Jeannie Nitro, an unhappy married couple, and a wimpy mortician. A comedic take on the sort of pulp fiction that thrived in the United States in the midtwentieth century, the book is also a tale of existential despair.
Other major works
Short fiction: Notes of a Dirty Old Man, 1969; Erections, Ejaculations, Exhibitions, and General Tales of Ordinary Madness, 1972; Life and Death in the Charity Ward, 1973; South of No North: Stories of the Buried Life, 1973; BringMeYour Love, 1983; Hot Water Music, 1983; The Most Beautiful Woman in Town, and Other Stories, 1983; There’s No Business, 1984; The Day It Snowed in L.A., 1986.
Poetry: Flower, Fist, and Bestial Wail, 1960; Longshot Poems for Broke Players, 1962; Poems and Drawings, 1962; Run with the Hunted, 1962; It Catches My Heart in Its Hand, 1963; Cold Dogs in the Courtyard, 1965; Crucifix in a Deathhand, 1965; The Genius of the Crowd, 1966; The Curtains Are Waving, 1967; At Terror Street and Agony Way, 1968; Poems Written Before Jumping out of an Eighth Story Window, 1968; A Bukowski Sampler, 1969; The Days Run Away Like Wild Horses over the Hills, 1969; Fire Station, 1970; Mockingbird Wish Me Luck, 1972; Me and Your Sometimes Love Poems, 1973 (with Linda King); While the Music Played, 1973; Burning in Water, Drowning in Flame, 1974; Africa, Paris, Greece, 1975; Scarlet, 1976; Love Is a Dog from Hell, 1977; Maybe Tomorrow, 1977; Legs, Hips, and Behind, 1978; We’ll Take Them, 1978; Play the Piano Drunk Like a Percussion Instrument Until the Fingers Begin to Bleed a Bit, 1979; Dangling in the Tournefortia, 1981; The Last Generation, 1982; War All the Time: Poems, 1981-1984, 1984; The Roominghouse Madrigals: Early Selected Poems, 1946-1966, 1988; Last Night of the Earth Poems, 1992; Bone Palace Ballet: New Poems, 1997; What Matters Most Is How Well You Walk Through the Fire, 1999; Open All Night: New Poems, 2000; The Night TornMadwith Footsteps, 2001; The Flash of Lightning Behind the Mountain: New Poems, 2003; Sifting Through the Madness for theWord, the Line, the Way: New Poems, 2003; Slouching Toward Nirvana: New Poems, 2005 (John Martin, editor); Come on In! New Poems, 2006 (Martin, editor); The People Look Like Flowers at Last: New Poems, 2007 (Martin, editor); The Pleasures of the Damned: Poems, 1951- 1993, 2007 (Martin, editor).
Screenplay: Barfly, 1987. nonfiction: Shakespeare Never Did This, 1979 (photographs by Michael Montfort); The Bukowski/ Purdy Letters: A Decade of Dialogue, 1964-1974, 1983; Screams from the Balcony: Selected Letters, 1960-1970, 1993; Reach for the Sun: Selected Letters, 1978-1994, 1999 (Seamus Cooney, editor); Beerspit Night and Cursing: The Correspondence of Charles Bukowski and Sheri Martinelli, 1960-1967, 2001 (Steven Moore, editor).
Miscellaneous: You Kissed Lilly, 1978; Septuagenarian Stew: Stories and Poems, 1990; Run with the Hunted: A Charles Bukowski Reader, 1993; Betting on the Muse: Poems and Stories, 1996; Charles Bukowski: Portions from a Wine-Stained Notebook—Uncollected Stories and Essays, 1944-1990, 2008 (David Stephen Calonne, editor)
Brewer, Gay. Charles Bukowski. New York: Twayne, 1997.
Calonne, David Stephen. Charles Bukowski: Sunlight Here I Am—Interviews and Encounters, 1963-1993. Northville, Mich.: Sun Dog Press, 2003.
Charlson, David. Charles Bukowski: Autobiographer, Gender Critic, Iconoclast. Victoria, B.C.: Trafford, 2005.
Cherkovski, Neeli. Hank: The Life of Charles Bukowski. New York: Random House, 1991.
Duval, Jean-François. Bukowski and the Beats: A Commentary on the Beat Generation. Translated by Alison Ardron. Northville, Mich.: Sun Dog Press, 2002.
Harrison, Russell. Against the American Dream: Essays on Charles Bukowski. Santa Rosa, Calif.: Black Sparrow Press, 1994.
Krumhansl, Aaron. A Descriptive Bibliography of the Primary Publications of Charles Bukowski. Santa Rosa, Calif.: Black Sparrow Press, 1999.
Miles, Barry. Charles Bukowski. New York: Virgin Books, 2006.
Sounes, Howard. Charles Bukowski: Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life. New York: Grove Press, 1998.