But it's easy (and may even be necessary) to outgrow Bukowski's self-mythologizing lowlife pose/prose, just as it is to move beyond Judy Blume or Tom Robbins. How many people still read Bukowski in their 30s, 40s and beyond? I sometimes imagine him as a case of arrested development -- as if the Tom Waits of the '70s, who made boozy atmospheric records like "Closing Time," "Nighthawks at the Diner" and "Small Change," had never developed the richer, more mature and poetic music of "Rain Dogs," "Alice" and "Blood Money."
Jim Emerson, Review of Factotum, rogerebert.com (Aug. 25, 2006).
I was never a devotee of Charles Bukowski. It always seemed too obvious. Tales of dank bars and boozy exhortations seemed, eventually, limiting, as if there was only one way to depict nihilism for Bukowski (and, sadly, only one way to live it). Bukowski could make this point - perhaps only this point, as his alcoholism chained him to the public house - while other, similar-yet-better writers like Raymond Carver and Tobias Wolff go farther, exploring the consequences of nihilism or duplicity, or looking to the question of hope (and here, in particular, I think of Carver's heartbreaking story A Small, Good Thing, which won the 1983 O. Henry Award). Other writers, those that seem to have never bellied up to the bar, address issues that make Bukowski a one-note troubadour. Richard Russo has succeeded in creating a niche for himself by being one of the few modern writers to address the question of Christian (particularly, Roman Catholic) compassion. He has also succeeded in allowing humor - sometimes sublime, awe-inspiring humor - to be the art it deserves to be. He is not burdened by the dreaded seriousness of life (see, e.g., Jonathan Franzen, particularly his painfully self-important essays How to be Alone).
The question becomes, when considering Bukowski, why he has so much appeal. What is it about the derelict that is so fascinating? Is it the self-control, albeit maintained via self-destruction?
all I've ever known are whores, ex-prostitutes,
madwomen. I see men with quiet,
gentle women I see them in the supermarkets,
I see them walking down the streets together,
I see them in their apartments: people at
peace, living together. I know that their
peace is only partial, but there is
peace, often hours and days of peace.
quiet clean girls in gingham dresses..., from Love is a Dog from Hell
Reading this I think, "I know, I know, you long for the good clean life," also well aware of the fact that, whether Bukowski would admit it or not, he - the literary "he" - denied himself such a life.
Bukowski is the ham-on-rye of the exploration of the modern American condition. He is in no small sense a cliche. Outside of reading Camus, the Bukowski-obsessed seem to say, there is no way of depicting emptiness or darkness without incorporating a bar or an unpleasant depiction of promiscuity. This is, of course, not the case. Cormac McCarthy's recent work, No Country for Old Men, demonstrated that the questions of meaninglessness can be addressed under the bright sun of Texas' border country. The novel has an ending I wish I never read, not because it is "hokum," as one critic wrote, but because it bothers me so intensely. McCarthy took seriously the question of the absence of meaning and put it before the reader in a setting where the characters were striving, desperately, for meaning, rather than a setting where the characters were striving desperately for another round.
In the end, one looking at Bukowski is left to question whether the stories of drunken disaster must be repeated ad infinitum until bleary eyed readers curse and say enough. Is there some other way to ask the question of nihilism, one that may take a stronger position in the current vernacular? Or, better still, are there more important questions to ask? Can nihilism be overcome, and, if so, with what? If these questions are worth examining, it seems that the readers must move away from the adulation given to Bukowski much as was done with the "glory of the road" and Kerouac. We don't need to ask this same question, over and over. We answered it last round.