Born 16th August 1920 to a strict disciplinarian American father and a passive German mother in the Rhine Valley town of Andernach, modern day Germany, Henry Charles Bukowski endured a fractious youth punctuated by violence, rejection and painfully bloody boils.
Moving to the United States in 1923, his family settling in Los Angeles, Bukowski was an outcast throughout childhood, reluctantly falling in with other oddballs and rejects. His best-known work, Ham on Rye (1982), tells of alienated childhood of beatings and detachment birthing a rudderless adolescence cut short when thrown from the family home into the grizzly embrace of skid row.
Leaving L.A. at the advent of World War II, Bukowski’s compulsion to write led him to New York in pursuit of publication. Lean years followed and, despite publishing his first story aged 24, Bukowski gave up writing, an almighty binge instead leading him across America, through race tracks and dead end postal work, to a bed in L.A. County Hospital, 1954 – an internal haemorrhage threatening to cut him short.
“Basically, that’s why I wrote: to save my ass, to save my ass from the madhouse, from the streets, from myself.”
Post-hospitalisation, Bukowski began to find writing success in L.A.’s underground press, switching his focus from short stories to poetry, finding publication in the L.A. Free Press and writing a column, Notes of a Dirty Old Man, for Open City. His popularity began growing among voices in the street if not amid critical circles.
1959 saw the publication of the first of his eventual 40 poetry books: Flower, Fist and Bestial Wail. It set the tone for Bukowski’s voice, riffing on a desolate world brimming with the absurdities of life, and a style that largely avoided metaphor in favour of carefully told, lurid anecdotes.
“When you drank the world was still out there, but for a moment it didn’t have you by the throat.”
In 1979, after publication of his first three novels – Post Office (1971), Factotum (1975), and Women (1978) – Bukowski was commissioned to write the screenplay for Barfly, a film based on his life. Eventually released in 1987, Bukowski documented the problem-stricken production in his 1989 novel, Hollywood.
Bukowski’s final novel, Pulp, was released shortly before his death from Leukaemia in 1994. However, a close relationship with Black Sparrow Press editor, John Martin, and a near inexhaustible backlog of unpublished work – estimates put it at over 5,300 short stories and poems written throughout his life – saw a considerable posthumous output.
A man of little pretension writing out of necessity rather than for romance or ambition, Bukowski’s work explored the beaten and broken underbelly of American life through violent, unforgiving and sexual language and imagery. His stand-in, Henry Chinaski cuts an unheroic figure looking to violence, alcoholism and sex not for ego but as a tonic for the ills inflicted by an absurd, meaningless existence.
Bukowski had lots to say about not very much, which, ultimately, is what many of us spend most of our lives doing.
By Jack Meredith