March 19, 2006

The real Charles Bukowski

By: Kelly Jane Torrance

“Hey, baby, when I write, I’m the hero of my own shit,” Charles Bukowski once told filmmaker Taylor Hackford, who was disgruntled about his appearance in one of Bukowski’s columns.

The poet and novelist was certainly one of the most mythic figures of the twentieth-century literary world. That persona–a drunken misogynist ready to take on the world–is on full display in Bukowski: Born into This, the 2003 documentary that is finally released on DVD this week. But what makes the film a success is not its relentless evidence of that myth’s truth. It’s in its hints that–surprise, surprise–the man may have been something more than just the larger than life figure.

Perhaps Steve Richmond, a poet and friend, sums up the Bukowski ethos best: “You gotta drink, write, and f—.” We rarely see Bukowski in the film without a glass or bottle of something in his hand. Preferably red wine, but beer worked, too. “Cheap Italian wine, you guys really bust me up,” he says before an appearance organized by San Francisco’s legendary City Lights bookstore. He’d started drinking hours before, of course. Backstage, he throws up; seconds later, he’s wiping vomit off his mouth in front of hundreds of admirers.

His hard drinking becomes perfectly understandable in the context of his “horror story with a capital H” childhood. His father beat him three times a week, he says, from the ages of about six to 11. “This was good literary training,” he later said. “When you get the shit kicked out of you long enough and long enough, you learn to say exactly what you mean. You get all the pretension kicked out of you.”

But that wasn’t all. He was also disfigured with acne so severe it left his face pockmarked for the rest of his life. “Hank,” as he was known to his friends–he was born Henry Charles Bukowski, Jr. in 1920–started writing at the age of 13, when he was covered in boils. “It seemed a very easy, nice thing to do.” His father promptly tore up his first short story and Bukowski Junior began a decades-long career as an iconoclast.

He started with short stories, writing four or five a week while he worked as a day laborer, living on a single Payday candy bar a day. He found his true calling, however, after his hard drinking almost lost him his life. “I just started typing,” he recalled. “Only this time, it came out as poetry.” Why it took him so long to realize he was a born poet, who knows–the archival footage here shows that his casual conversations came out sounding much like his spare, hard poems. As one of his fans, U2’s Bono, says in the film, “Here was a guy: ‘Look, I have no time for metaphor.'”

His sometimes surprisingly funny novels came later. Publisher John Martin got Bukowski to quit his job at the post office after 15 years, offering him $100 per month for life, whether he wrote or not. But Bukowski never let him down. Martin suggested he write a novel, as they sell better than poetry or stories. That was in early January 1970. That same month, Bukowski called Martin. “Come and pick it up,” he said. “What?” Martin asks. “My novel. You said to write a novel.” Martin, awed, wondered, “How could you write a novel in three or four weeks?” Bukowski answered simply, “Fear.”

It’s in his relationships with women that Bukowski loses some sympathy. He regularly refers to them by their body parts. He talks about taking advantage of his fame, when gorgeous women showed up at his house just to sleep with him. He once had six women in one night. The most harrowing moment in the film comes near the end, when a camera catches him abusing his last wife, Linda Lee Bukowski, who took care of him until his death in 1994 from leukemia. “I’m going to get an attorney,” he says, later specifying a “Jewish” attorney, “and get your ass moved out of here.” After screaming a litany of curses at her, he kicks her off the couch, the poor woman’s top falling off. The footage ends with him appearing to jump on top of her. “It was mortifying,” she remembers.

But there must have been something to make her stay. She talks about the importance of his work. She says they were friends for years before becoming more. She laughs remembering him calling Mickey Mouse “this three-fingered son of a bitch who has no soul.” But perhaps Bukowski simply wasn’t as hard as he often seemed.

He regales one interviewer with a long story of how he lost his virginity at the age of 24 to a 300-pound prostitute. Afterward, he kicked her out, accusing her of stealing his wallet. He later found it lying between the sheets. In his eyes, you can tell he feels very badly about how he treated this woman he met only once. During another interview, he tears up when reading a poem about his ex-girlfriend Linda King. Even his oft-repeated story of his childhood seems called into question: One friend notes that despite his apparent hatred of his parents, he often returned there to visit. So how much of the Bukowski myth was simply swagger?

The poet who allowed so many who followed him to reject formalism is simply too complicated to be put into a box–even that of “the maverick.” A girlfriend reports that he didn’t like hippies, many of whom were fans of his. “Let them go work in a post office, they’ll see what life is all about,” he reportedly sneered. An interviewer driving with Bukowski points to the radio and asks, “Do you like this music, classical music?” He nods and says, “It’s the only kind.”

Near the end of the film, we hear Bukowski reading his poem “Bluebird.” The documentary itself may be a two-hour, subtle riff on one of Bukowski’s most personal poems:

there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I’m too tough for him…
there’s a bluebird in my heart that
wants to get out
but I pour whiskey on him and inhale
cigarette smoke. . .
I say,
stay down, do you want to mess
me up?
you want to screw up the
you want to blow my book sales in

Bukowski: Born into This does the most important thing any documentary of an artist can do: give some insight into his work. The complicated, terrifying genius that was Charles Bukowski is well-served by this film that shows him as he really was and how he wanted to be, warts and all.

Kelly Jane Torrance is arts and culture editor of Brainwash. Her Web site is