I started reading Bukowski in prison in the mid-1970s thanks to my pal Philippe Garnier who was translating them into French, and I knew I was on to a good thing the first time I fell off the bed with laughing over a short story. In this Buk is the non-passive victim of a visit from mad Jimmy ( recently crazy Jimmy),a bad painter.
“So there’s mad Jimmy and there’s me Or there’s Maxie. Maxie is going to shut off all the sewers in Los Angeles to help the Cause of the people. Well it’s a damned nice gesture,you’ve got to admit that. But Maxie 2 buddy, I say,let me know when you’re going to shut off all the sewers. I’m for the People. We’ve been friends for a long time. I’ll leave town a week early.What Maxie doesn’t realise is that Causes and Shit are different things. Starve me, but don’t cut off my shit and/or shit disposal unit. I remember once my landlord left town on a nice two week vacation to Hawaii.•Okay.The day after he left town my toilet stopped. I had myown personal plunger,being very frightened of shit,but I plunged and plunged and it didn’t work.You know where that left me.
So I called up my own personal friends,and I’m the type who doesn’t have too many personal friends,or if I have them they don’t have toilets let alone telepohones…more often,they don’t have any thing.
So,I called the one or two who had toilets.They were very nice. “Sure,Hank,you can shit at my place anytime!”
I didn’t take up their invitations. Maybe it was the way they said it.So here was my landlord in Hawaii watching the hula girls,and those fucking turds just lay on top of the water and whirled around and looked at me.
So each night I had to shit and then pluck the turds out of water, place them in wax paper and then into a brown paper bag and get into
my car and drive around town looking for some place to toss them.
So mostly double-parked with the motor running I’d just toss the goddamned turds over some wall,any wall.I tried to be non-predjudiced, but this one Home, for the Aged seemed a particularly quiet place and I think I gave them my little brown bag of turds at least three times.
Or sometimes I’d just be driving along and roll up the window and rather flick the turds out as one would, say,cigarette ashes or a couple of dozen burnt-out cigars.”
I must have laughed and fallen off the bed so many times(dropping the book and losing the page in the process)that the guy in the next cell must have got worried about me or got the needle over all this laughing and random banging. Anyway after I told him the cause of all this mayhem there’ were queues and waiting lists for each new Bukowski book. It got to be like one of the stories, no peace for Barker, those times of elementary privacy so necessary inside. Over time they became sections of books that had fallen apart (no blame to City Lights the publisher, no paper back could have withstood the treatment) whicht got passed around, sections that did not necessarily coincide with whole stories. They maybe, four years later still in circulation in the max security system. My own explanation for the queues and the rest is not just how funny they are it was because we knew the characters in his stories so well.
The funny thing is you know he isn’t bullshitting, that he’s lived out/is living out what he’s writing.That in fact he’s earned the right to write at a time when far too many books are written. With Bukowski it’s not a case of “Hand me my ghetto suit James” for a month or twos’ slumming to get the artistically sordid background.
I had my reservations too .At first reading some of the stories seemed wilfully sexist .But a second time it seemed more a matter of him just liking women, making a ‘fool’ of himself, having a good time. But a woman friend who I gave one of his books tom did say she didn’t, like the stories much, not because they degraded women but because it was such a male world. I don’t know. Certainly there is that world like horse racing, And on horse racing he’s very handy, useful. Like on horse which always finish second, which can only run well when there’s a horse in front of which makes the bookies lots of money with punters staying on the horse which will do the business next time out.And Bukowski’s tips can be a lot more generalised but perhaps even more useful and important.
“it’s after a bad day at the max track that you realize you will never make it,coming in stinking at the socks,a few wrinkled dollars in your wallet,you know that the miracle will never arrive,and worse, thinking about the really bad bet you made on the last race of eleven horse,knowing you couldn’t win,the biggest sucker bet on the board at 9/2,all the knowledge of your years ignored,you going up to the ten buck window and saying “eleven twice!”and the old grey–haled boy at the window, asking again:”eleven?” he always asks when I pick a bad one,he may not know the actual winner but he knows the sucker bets, and he gives me the saddest of looks and takes the twenty.then to go out and watch that dog run last all the way,not even working at it,just loafing as your brain says “what the fuck,’ gotta be crazy.”
I’ve talked this over with a friend of mine who has many years of betting on horses and dogsof he’s often done the same thing and he calls it the “death wish”,which is old stuff, we yawn at the term now,but strangely there’s still some basis in it yet, a man does get tired as the race progresses and there IS this tendency to throw the whole game overboard, the feeling can come upon him whether he is winning or losing and then the badbets begin.But,I feel,a more real problem is that you ACTUALLY want to be somewhere else-sitting in a chair reading Faulkner or making drawings with your child’s crayons,the racetrack is just another JOB finally,and a hard one too. When I sense this and at my best I simply leave the track:when I sense this and at not at my best I go on making bad bets.”
And I know what he means. He’s describing exactly what I’ve experienced, made some sense out of them and made a basis for me to make more sense out of them. He’s right, you don’t do things well when you’re doing them from the sheer inertia of not being able to leave somewhere where you don’t want to be. A good friend says those are exactly the times when she plays darts badly.
And it describes that kind of stubborn obsessiveness which is a big part of the content of the death wish. Pretty smart eh? Put it this way I reckon his pal’s analysis and his own are not that far removed And finally he tells me clearly what I get obsessive about-that is the feeling that ‘self-awareness by itself is not worth a carrot. Whether you act on it or not, according to Buk, depends on whether you’re feeling at your best. To wrap it up when you’re in tune with your desires and you’re listening to them andthey’re strong enough to break through that stubborn obsessiveness.
What I like most about the guy is that he neither Romanticises nor lives off Disgust at his world, his milieu…maybe another sign that he’s in it. There was some recognition of the truth of it in a prison story.
“Moyamensing Prison reminded me of an old castle.2 large wooden gates swung open to let me in.’ am surprised we didn’t walk across a moat.
They stuck me in with a fat man who looked like a public accountant. I’m Courtney Taylor,public enemy No.1 he told me. What are you in for? he asked
He knew then because I’d been asked on the way in.
There’s two things we can’t stand here:draft dodgers and indecent exposure cases. Honor among thieves,eh? Keep the country wrong so you can rob it. We still don’t like draft dodgers.
I’m really innocent .I moved and forgot to leave a forwarding address with the draft board.’ notified the post office. Got a letter from St Louis while I was in this town to report for a draft examination.’ told them I couldn’t make it to St.Louis
to have them examine me here.’I don’t understand it: if I were trying to dodge the draft I wouldn’t have given them my address.
All you guys are innocent, sounds like bullshit to me.I stretched out on the bunk a screw came by.GET UP OFF YOUR DEAD ASS: he screamed at me.I got off my dead draft dodging ass.
Do you want to kill yourself? Taylor asked me.
Yes, I said.
Just pull down the overhead pipe that holds the cell light, fill that bucket with water and stick your foot on it, take out the light bulb and stick your finger in the socket.then you’re out of here.
I looked at the light a long time.
Thank yousTaylort you’re very helpful.
At lights out I lay down and they started in,bedbugs.
What the shit’s this I screamed.
Bedbugs said Taylor,we got bedbugs.
I bet I’ve got more bedbugs than you’ve got, I said. Bet ten cents?
I began to catch and kill mine. I laid them on the little wooden table.
Finally we called time. We took our bedbugs over to the cell door where there was light and we counted them. I had 13.he had 18.1 gave him the dime.it wasn’t until later that I found out he was breaking his in halfg and stretching them. He had been a swindler, a real pro. the son of a bitch.”
“Public enemy No.1,he told me” how many times you hear the equivalent inside-talking in telephone numbers-but here it’s a sort of innocent bullshitting.And of course the ‘conservative’ criminal who depends on the existence of things they are to stay in business, though there are very few conservative criminals in the prison system. And anyway into
it breaks another part of the reality the cheerful lunacy that they BOTH get into, and of course you do have to go to the door where the light is to do the counting.
I’ve read three books of short stories-“Notes of a dirty old man”, “Erections,Ejaculations,Exhibitions,and general tales of ordinary madness”)both pub. City Light Books),and “South of no North”(pub. Black Sparrow Press).Most of the stories are autobiographical or at least to have come from lived experience and they in general seem to me to be about the only way worth writing.
By “South of No North these have become a lot harder, like the sting that goes with his story of the cannibal who becomes a pet/lover/status symbol with a rich lady in L.A. or the nastiest story of ‘the robbery that goes wrong’.
The other two books I’ve read-“Factotum” and”Post Office where he worked for 15 years)(both pubaalack Sparrow Press) are not so much novels as autobiographical long stories without the tyrannical finishedness of a novel. Instead its rambling and tight at the same time with no big deal end. “Post Office” is about the best book I’ve read about work…not just the boredom and irrationality but like the accumulation of rage and defiance when delivering through the rain with accompanying abuse and ear pounding, No big deal made of the Union which just does nothing over the one thing that really bugs him. And in other stories he gives us the world of warehouse and
stock clerk jobs in un-unionised America.
There are times when it does slip into an exalted, perfectly formed and protected fatalism.But on work he mainly has all the virtues that I read ascribed to the film “Bluecollar” and not the positioned and fetishised delight, say of recent Solidarity’ writing on discovering informal working class organisation. It’s all a matter of whether
such writing is done without making much of a big deal is made out of it, putting too much weight on those informal subversions and without giving too much away to those who seek to manage it.
Sometimes the attacks on ‘idealists’ seem facile and cliched but other times he’s just dead on and the laughs are cutting. There’s so much pure outrage.
“In the current Los Angeles Times(as this is being written)we are having the wind-up of a Hippie-Beatnik scene in Mary Worth. We have had here the campus rebel, bearded and in turtleneck sweater running off with the campus queen ,a long-haired girl with perfect figure
(I almost got rocks looking at her).what the campus rebel stands f we are never quite sure except in a few short speeches which say very little. Anyhow I will not bore you with the story line.it ends
up with big bad poppa in necktie and expensive suit and baldheaded and eaglefaced giving out a few dictums of his own to the bearded one, then offering him a job with his outfit so that he can properly support his sexy daughter. The Hippie-Beatnik at first refuses and vanishes off the page and poppa and daughter are packing to leave hint–to leave him there in his own idealistic slime, when the Hippie-Beatnik returns.”Joe;…What have you done?” says the sexy daughter. and Joe enters SMILING AND BEARDLESS: “I thought it only fair for you to know what your husband looked liketsweetheart…before it was too late!”Then he turns to poppa:”Also I figured that a beard would be more of a handicap than a help…ON A REAL ESTATE SALESMAN!”Does this mean you’ve finally come to YOUR SENSES young man?” asks poppa.”It means thatl’m willing to pay the price that you put on your daughter,sir!”(ah,sextah love,ah FUCK!) “But” continues our x-hippie,. “I still intend to fight INJUSTICE…wherever I find it!” well that’s good because our x-hip is going to find there’s a lot of injustice in the real-estate business Tthen as a parter poppa gives his line;”However you’re in for a big SURPRISE,Joe!…when you discover that we
old mossbacks want a better world too. We just don’t believe in I BURNING the house down to get rid of the termites.” ”
It’s that line “well,that’s good because our x-hip is going to find a lot of injustice in the real estate business” which set me off laughing like a hyena. Here it is not so much the cop out but the sheer grossness of the presentation from the Los Angeles Times. And he gets to the heart of that from the start when he points out ‘what the campus rebel stands for we are never quite surel.To the extent it is about actual cop-out he puts through the mangle that wishful thinking that you can have jam on it, that you can keep your conscience and remain pure despite what you are objectively doing.
But like I said what is most of all important here is showing just how gross this storyline island hands up those who’ve recently screamed at an advert on the telly. Screamed at the sheer inanity of it. Or have they worn us down with sheer persistence(that is where they haven’t actually hooked people on a camp aesthetics of advertisments.). It is what Bukowski does here that’s done me most good in the same way as when his no-illusions style is punctured by bursts of healthy rage.It is an outrage so innocent that it calls into question all those concessions we make by losing our sense of the irrationality and unacceptable bullshit of the world as it istwhile celebrating
the pleasure and desire possible in it’, That outrage is something we think or rather take for granted but don’t feel any more. It’s like you know the SPG for example are brutal thugs and that seems to weigh against feeling outrage at their latest atrocity. There is somewherea balance,not to know that this brutality, is inherent to the organisation and purpose of such a forcejis to have swallowed a lot of old cobblers. What Bukowski has made easier to feel again is the outrage without being surprised.
This final passage is where Bukowski is in the Charity ward after vomiting bloodl collapsing.
“The next day a nurse came and got me and helped me on a rolling platform. I was still vomiting up blood and was quite weak. She rolled me on the elevator.
The technician got behind his machine. They poked a point into my belly and told me to stand there. I felt very weak.
“I’m too weak to stand up,” I said.
“Just stand there,” the technician said.
“I don’t think I can,” I said
“I’m falling,” I said.
“Don’t fall,” he said.
“Hold still,” said the nurse.
I fell over backwards.I felt as if I were made of rubber. There was no feeling when I hit the floor.I felt very light,I probably was “Oh goddam it” said the technician.
The nurse helped me up and stood me against the machine with this point jamming in my stomach.
“I can’t stand,” I said, “I think I’m dying. I can’t stand.
I’m sorry but I can’t stand up.”
“Stand still,” said the technician,”just stand there”. “Stand still,” said the nurse.
I could feel myself falling.I fell over backwards.
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“God damn you!” the technician screamed,”you made me waste two films’,Those god damned films cost money!”
“I’m sorry,” I said.
“Take him out of here,” said the technician.
The nurse helped me up and put me back on the roller. The humming nurse rolled me back to the elevator, humming”
All the quotes in this review come from “Erections…”.The queues and waiting lists exist for fresh copies on the outside now and the buggers don’t give them back. (,),