Were he still with us, Charles Bukowski would be 93 Friday. Happy birthday, Charles Bukowski!
Bukowski was dubbed the Poet Laureate of Skid Row; he wrote about the gritty neighborhoods of Los Angeles, the bars and racetracks and cheap hotel rooms.
Born in Germany to parents who moved to Los Angeles when he was a toddler, Bukowski had a difficult time growing up. As a boy, he was subject to his father’s abuse; as a teen, a terrible case of acne made him an outcast.
He had a writing career that sputtered rather than taking off, and, through a hard-drinking 10-year binge, supported himself with a series of menial jobs, the last of which was for the U.S. post office.
His breakthrough came in 1969, when John Martin of Black Sparrow Press offered the little-known 49 year-old writer a deal to quit his day job and work full time. The initial result, the 1971 novel “Post Office,” featured his alter ego Henry Chinaski, a character that would appear again and again.
Bukowski became a prolific underground writer of both prose and poetry, publishing more than 40 books. He often maintained an outsider stance in his writing, leading off poems with lines like, “don’t ever get the idea I am a poet; you can see me / at the racetrack any day half drunk.” Yet before long he was celebrated in France and eventually given grudging respect by the American literary establishment.
There’s still a lot of Bukowski out there to read (over forty major works still in print) so definitely give him a try. An excellent checklist of his works can be found at the Bukowski web site. Several movies have been made from Bukowski’s writing, including Barfly, which the author then wrote about filming in a subsequent book, Hollywood.
Warning: some people love Bukowski while others abhor his work. Read him no matter how you react: it just might be that you’ll find the discomfort of reading about the denizens of skid-row curiously nourishing to your inherent humanity.