Charles Bukowski wrote with raw, unfiltered, unapologetic and gruesome power, enticing you into his filthy world which becomes impossible to forget or move on from. 39 years on from ‘Women’ the world is a different place and it is interesting to consider if a book like this would even get published anymore. In an age of hypersensitivity, media narratives, political fuckary and cultural suicide, Bukowski may be appealing now, more than ever.
I read ‘Women’, his 1978 novel, over the course of three days and watched the excellent 2003 documentary ‘Born Into This’, immediately after, hooked into Bukowski’s dirty world.
Women is a semi-autobiographical account of Bukowski’s life as a 50 year old writer living in L.A in the 1950’s, surrounded by alcohol, women and not much else.
The story follows Henry Chinaski, the alter-ego of Bukowski, as he moves from poetry reading, to all night drinking sessions and onto multiple encounters with women.
Almost every page is soaked with beer or cheap wine, every other, smeared with bodily fluids.
There is no metaphor, there is no romance, there is no heroism and there is very little joy.
But still, there is a lightness to his writing, a strange, twisted humour which you can’t help but smirk at, as each unadulterated sexual encounter passes.
If you start reading the book you might make the early assumption that it is nothing more that smut, but that would be missing the point completely and trust me, there is nothing erotic or tantilising about his portrayal of sex.
He is brutal in his depiction of himself and his description of his treatment of women.
Early life and writing style
Before Bukowski got anywhere near notoriety in his 50’s, he had worked at the post office for around 12 years and had wandered America, holding odd jobs and living off one chocolate bar a day, however, the man was writing the whole time.
His poetry was rejected wherever he went but nothing put him off, he had an obsession.
When taking into account the volume of work produced and the type of content he was producing, you could make the assumption that Bukowski was a man who was desperately troubled and saw writing as the best way to stay sane.
His stories are real life accounts and when reading Women, there are sections which feel confessional.
Psychologically, the man had suffered greatly at the hands of his parents who abused him from a young age, he had also suffered from Cystic Acne which left his face severely scared and was socially rejected from a young age. Add alcoholism and severe loneliness into the equation, it’s easy to understand how he had toughened up and wrote without fear.
His writing style in ‘Women’ hit me like a lightning bolt, I tore through the pages and was done with the book after a few tube journeys. It’s incomparable, however there were similarities drawn with the likes of Alan Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac, writers known for defining the beats during the same time period, but nothing could be further from the truth.
“I sat down next to her. ‘I’m—-‘ I started to say….
‘I know who you are, I was at your reading.’
‘Thanks. I’d like to eat your pussy. I’ve gotten pretty good at it. I’ll drive you crazy.’
‘What do you think of Allen Ginsberg?’
‘Look, don’t get me off track. I want your mouth, your legs, your ass.”
This quick exchange in ‘Women’ tell’s you everything you need to know about Bukowski’s opinion of comparisons to the beat poets, he had no time for them at all.
He had no time for kicking eyeballs or romantisising about being a bum in America, he presented life as it was, no filter and no flowery language to cover the smell of reality.
Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed reading ‘On the Road’, which remains one of my favorite novels. The mythical nature of Kerouac’s representation of America played a major part in changing literature and youth culture in the late 50’s and early 60’s, and remains iconic to this day, however, its a dreamy world, full of promise, youth and adventure. Its not real, it’s not Bukowski.
Instead, the dirty old man wrote about nothing but the truth. There is no pretending in his writing, he never tries to present himself as a great lover, intellectual or hero, he’s actually more of a villain….
He titles a book called Women yet admits to knowing nothing about them.
“Why do you write about women the way you do?’
‘No I don’t’
‘Well, I think it’s a dammned shame that a man who writes as well as you do, just doesn’t know anything about women.’
I didn’t answer.”
It’s little extracts like this which show that Bukowski understood his faults and lack of appreciation for the women he wrote about. The entire book is a pretty harsh character study, though once you understand his background, his unashamed approach is understandable.
In the documentary I mentioned earlier ‘Born into this’, Bukowski talks about how his horrifying childhood shaped his uncompromising style.
It’s a pretty brutal education to say the least but the upbringing Bukowski endured contributed to the definition of his style and contemporary literature from the 50’s onward, not bad for a drunk old man.
The book is a vital read and one I thoroughly enjoyed (despite the fact that I had to make sure nobody was reading over my shoulder on the tube due to the explicit content).
That being said, it won’t be for everybody. In an age where offence is caused by assuming somebody’s gender or sitting with your legs parted on the tube, this book would undoubtedly make a few peoples heads explode….
Bukowski did abuse women, but he put it out there, he showed the whole world his soul and invited the mob to burn down his house. So whether you agree with his representation of women or not, reading such an open and honest account is incredibly refreshing when hypersensitivity is king in 2017.
So it’s fair to say I’ll be greedily working my way through his collection over the next few months and will undoubtedly be writing about him again soon…