One day in the early 1980s, while working as assistant manager for a chaotic and dying London bookstore chain, I opened a new delivery from Star Paperbacks, not exactly the gold standard of publishing. There at the top of the box was a new title, Women by Charles Bukowski, a name that meant nothing to me. The cover, however, caught my eye—a “tasteful” nude photograph of a long, lean woman with long, blond hair, face not shown, but one nipple clearly visible. The book looked a little too classy to be genuine pulp or porn, and yet a publisher that stuck a nude photograph on the front of a novel clearly wasn’t making much effort to sell it as high literature, either. The very brief author biography inside said Bukowski had written thirty books of poetry and prose and that “the brilliance of his writing has won him a devoted following in America and on the continent.” Not in England, though.
I was enough of a book nerd to read the acknowledgments page and discovered that sections of the book had appeared in a City Lights anthology, which gave the book some measure of literary respectability, but Hustler was acknowledged there, too. That sounded like an interesting contradiction. And other contradictions presented themselves. The back cover blurb said the book’s hero, Henry Chinaski, had “a sex-life that would cripple Casanova” and yet the first line of the book read, “I was 50 years old and hadn’t been to bed with a woman for four years.” The hero then says he has no lady friends, that he looks at women on the street with a sense of futility, and even though he masturbates regularly, the idea of having a relationship with a woman is beyond his imagination.
I wasn’t even thirty years old at the time, and being fifty was certainly beyond my imagination, but the rest of his condition I could imagine all too easily. I wasn’t exactly shocked by Bukowski’s words, but I did find them unusually and surprisingly candid. I hadn’t read anything quite like that before. On the other hand, I’d read a ton of Henry Miller, a writer who in some ways Bukowski resembles, but I’d fallen out of love with him. It had a lot to do with sex. If Miller’s shtick was to be believed, he couldn’t walk down any street without meeting some woman who’d beg him to take her roughly and give her the orgasm of her life. Miller, of course, was too big a man to deny her. Bukowski wasn’t having any of that, and I thought, good for him. And there was absolutely none of Miller’s god-awful “philosophy.”
Bukowski, like Miller, is regularly accused of misogyny, and it’s futile to deny it, but in Bukowski’s case, there’s often a redeeming, comic ambivalence about it. When Chinaski’s sexual drought ends in Women, as early as page eighteen, the event is funny, grotesque, and plausible. The scene ends with the woman, Lydia, calling him a son of a bitch, while he tells her he loves her: not the classic misogynistic outcome.
Women, I discovered, was Bukowski’s third novel, and I soon read his first, Post Office, which I bought cheap as a remaindered hardback. This time the jacket tries to make the book look like a Tom Sharpe farce. A cartoon illustration shows a bald, bespectacled man in shorts sitting on top of a British mailbox, reading a book, while a dog snaps at his bare feet. If it had encouraged people to buy the novel, this misrepresentation would have been forgivable, but since the book had been remaindered, it obviously hadn’t worked.
When Star Paperbacks published Factotum, the tasteful nudity had gone, and instead there was a grainy black-and-white photograph of Bukowski on the front. This time the author biography said he was “raised in Los Angeles and now lives in San Pedro, California.” I had absolutely no idea where or what San Pedro was.
In due course I read the rest of Bukowski’s novels, and a great many (I wouldn’t claim all) of his short stories, often in the distinguished, serious-looking editions published by Black Sparrow Press. These do indeed look like literature, and I’m not for a moment suggesting that Bukowski is anything less than a highly literary writer, but I’m rather glad I found him in odd, cheap, ambiguous volumes and had to make up my own mind about what kind of writer he was.
Photo by Anne Fishbein
Andy and Kelly
Jan 23, 06:22 PMPurchase or Subscribe to Slake: Los Angeles
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