The first book that I read by Bukowski, I think more than sixteen years ago, was a very concise one, the non-fiction The Captain Is Out to Lunch and the Sailors Have Taken Over the Ship, that was originally published four years after his death, in 1998. This book is very simple in content – even more than his short stories and novels, that are mostly personal, biographical recounts of his existence –, composed mainly of excerpts and journal entries that Bukowski wrote in his last years, about ordinary events in his daily life. Although there is nothing exceptional about this book, it is so well written, and Bukowski is so frank, direct and sincere with his reader, that it became impossible, at least for me, not to immediately love this book. Of course, I understand perfectly that literary preferences are an entirely personal matter; Bukowski works very well in what concerns my taste.
One of the greatest achievements of Bukowski – in my personal evaluation – is impregnating his literature with the basic characteristics of his personality, cynicism and skepticism, while at the same time, whether this would be a conscious decision or not, his literary art never became something dense, profound, tragic or dramatic, as opposed to more “serious” authors, like Phillip Roth. With the fewer exceptions of some short stories and some passages in his novels, the aforementioned black humor that he masterly displays, as well as his natural, spontaneous and habitual reactions to everything concerning life around him – from ordinary occurrences to more extraordinary situations – makes his literary art a very unique achievement, while concomitantly the author displays a rude simplicity, in vocabulary and expression, that certainly makes him practically an unofficial, but quintessential spokesperson for the ordinary everyday man.
By this time, though, he has discovered alcohol – something that would serve to anesthetize the pain and drudgery of life –, and the habit of drinking would become recurrent throughout his life, with drastic health issues as posterior consequences. The references to alcohol consumption would be constant and deeply celebrated in his literature.
These terrible occurrences of his life – which traumatized him to a degree – are abundantly narrated throughout his literature. Probably they are best retreated in his seminal novel Ham on Rye, published in 1982, which several fans and enthusiasts consider to be his masterpiece. The autobiographical work covers a large part of his life, from the beginning, in infancy, to later adulthood.
Another book that I loved very much was Factotum, Bukowski’s second novel, published in 1975. In this book, we follow Henry Chinaski – Bukowski’s alter ego, a recurrent character throughout his works – from job to job (hence the book’s title; factotum is a Latin word that literally means “do everything”, a “do it all” person, someone who accepts wherever job is available) – wandering by several cities and locations throughout the United States, destitute of a solid and decent perspective of future, in a permanent search for employment opportunities. The book was adapted into a relatively watchable film in 2005, starring Matt Dillon. Unfortunately, the movie simplified too much the novel – that has its subtle textures and densities –, and unfavorably unveils the story as a contemporary narrative, as opposed to the forties and fifties USA, that serves as the period upon which the events took place.
To read Charles Bukowski is almost an act of redemption. Besides his natural ability to tell an interesting and involving story – and the veracity behind it, because, being majorly autobiographical, he has experienced firsthand everything that he is telling to the reader – you perceive a very humane and solidary person. Behind all that apparent frivolity and rudeness, that were basically his personal defense on dealing with the hardships of life and the brutality of the world around him, there was a sensible individual, with a profound empathy for human beings, and a clear insight about the precariousness of existence. All this sensibility has definitely produced one of the best and most elemental literary iconoclasts that the world has ever known. (Want to know more about this author? Read another Bukowski article that I wrote here).