Charles Bukowski


the guy with the bluebird

[note: I’ve been reading the English original, also I’m not sure about the actual time frame of this story]

First things first: Charles Bukowski is not a travel writer. Some people have called him an existentialist writer. But he is not a travel writer. I am going to include him here anyway, because this book is a fictionalized memoir, and he moves around a lot in it.

So, here’s the story: it’s the early 1940s, the world is at war in Europe and the Pacific, and Bukowski (the protagonist’s name is actually Chinaski) is apparently considered unfit for duty. He roams about the United States (mostly Los Angeles), looking for work, getting fired, then looking for work again.

In between, there is a lot of drinking, hooking up with women and writing. The resulting book calls itself a novel, so it is unclear exactly how much of the story is fictional. But we don’t know that about Marco Polo‘s or Ibn Battuta‘s books either, do we?

the world celebrating Charles Bukowski

I have to admit one thing first: For me, talking about Bukowski is a bit like talking about Henry Rollins. It is difficult, mostly because I have been enjoying his work since a very young age, and I have to ask myself: how can I do justice to the heroes of my adolescence?

The other thing is that there is just too much annoying stuff going on with people who like Bukowski.

  • Tom Waits recites his poetry, forever making himself sound like he has “just been to a bar”. Cringeworthy.
  • Bono does the same and then talks about how he once invited Bukowski to a music show and how Bukowski really came and probably thought it was great. Makes you question your own judgment.
  • If the above isn’t enough of a turn off, just watch a video of one of Bukowski’s poetry readings and hear the audience laugh whenever he uses a dirty word. Disgusting.

why this is still great

That being said, this book is one of Bukowski’s greatest works. It’s fast-paced, the language is beautiful, and somewhere between all the action there is something very fragile.

I mean, of course it can be fun to read about whoring. Or about bars. Dirty words can be fun, too. And Bukowski definitely knows how to come up with a good aphorism. “What matters most is how well you walk through the fire” was one of his (posthumous) book titles.

But what I really find valuable about this book is the tenderness that shines through here and there. The tenderness and the humor. It’s as if life can never be too tough on you, because Bukowski has been there and done it before. He has lived, and therefore, you can, too.

There is a poem by Bukowski called “Bluebird”. It’s from a different book, but it sums everything up perfectly.

I think you’ll be able to find it if you want.

who might want to read this

Bukowski’s feat of roaming about the US during World War II is cool. His storytelling and his writing style are both on fire. There are some interesting observations and insights, though not many.

Read this if you want to read an awesome book.

Also read: Sanmao, for another writer’s (travel) memoir.