Charles Bukowski: Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Lifeby Howard Sounes
A former postman and long-term alcoholic who did not become a full-time writer until middle age, Charles Bukowski was the author of autobiographical novels that captured the low life--including Post Office, Factotum, and Women--and made him a literary celebrity, with a major Hollywood film (Barfly) based on his life. Drawing on new interviews with virtually all of
A former postman and long-term alcoholic who did not become a full-time writer until middle age, Charles Bukowski was the author of autobiographical novels that captured the low life--including Post Office, Factotum, and Women--and made him a literary celebrity, with a major Hollywood film (Barfly) based on his life. Drawing on new interviews with virtually all of Bukowski's friends, family, and many lovers; unprecedented access to his private letters and unpublished writing; and commentary from Norman Mailer, Allen Ginsberg, Sean Penn, Mickey Rourke, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, R. Crumb, and Harry Dean Stanton, Howard Sounes has uncovered the extraordinary true story of the Dirty Old Man of American literature. Illustrated with drawings by Bukowski and over sixty photographs, Charles Bukowski is a must for Bukowski devotees and new readers alike. As the Los Angeles Times noted, "Bukowski is one of those writers people remember more for the legend than for the work....but, as Howard Sounes shows in this exhaustively researched biography, it wasn't the whole story."
The New York Times Book Review
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Bukowski claimed the majority of what he wrote was literally what had happened in his life. Essentially that is what his books are all about an honest representation of himself and his experiences at the bottom of American society. He even went so far as to put a figure on it: ninety-three per cent of his work was autobiography, he said, and the remaining seven per cent was `improved upon'. Yet while he could be extraordinarily honest as a writer, a close examination of the facts of Bukowski's life leads one to question whether, to make himself more picaresque for the reader, he didn't `improve upon' a great deal more of his life story than he said.
The blurring of fact and fiction starts with the circumstances of Bukowski's birth.
`I was born a bastard that is, out of wedlock,' he wrote in 1971, and he repeated this story many times both in interviews and in his writing.
His parents met in Andernach, Germany, after World War One. His father, Sgt Henry Charles Bukowski, was serving with the US army of occupation and Bukowski's mother, Katharina Fett, was a local seamstress. She didn't like Henry at first, ignoring him when he called to her in the street, but he ingratiated himself with her parents by bringing food to their apartment and by speaking with them in German. He explained that his parents had emigrated to America from Germany so, by ancestry, he was German too. Henry and Katharina started dating and Henry soon made her pregnant.
There was a delaybefore they got married because Henry had to get demobbed from the army first. But Andernach city records show that they did marry, on 15 July, 1920, before their child was born.
They rented an apartment at the corner of Aktienstrasse, near the railway station, and it was here Katharina gave birth to a boy at 10 p.m. on 16 August. A few days later the child was baptized at the Roman Catholic cathedral, at a font decorated with a bird very much like a black sparrow. The priest named the child Heinrich Karl Bukowski, like his dad.
They stayed in Andernach for two years while Henry worked as a building contractor, and then moved to nearby Coblenz where they lodged for a while with a family named Gehrhardt on Sclostrasse. Gehrhardt family letters reveal that Katharina shocked them by telling sexy jokes, and that Henry kept postcards of nude girls hidden in the wash stand in his room.
Henry and his bride probably would have settled in the town if it hadn't been for the collapse of the German economy in 1923. Everyday life became so difficult after the crash that Henry had little choice but to return to the United States, and so they set sail from Bremerhaven, on the SS President Fillmore, on 18 April, 1923.
When they arrived in Baltimore, Bukowski's mother started calling herself Kate, so she sounded more American, and little Heinrich became little Henry. They also changed the pronunciation of their surname to Buk-cow-ski, as opposed to the harder European pronunciation which is Buk-ov-ski. Henry worked hard and they soon saved enough to move out to California where he had been born and raised.
His father, Leonard, had done well in the construction boom but had turned to drink and was separated from Henry's mother, Emilie, a strict Baptist. She lived alone in Pasadena, matriarch of a quarrelsome, bad-natured tribe described as `the battling Bukowskis' by cousin Katherine Wood `because none of them got along'. The siblings, in particular, couldn't stand each other. Henry had no time for his brother, John, who drank and was often out of work. He also disliked his brother, Ben, who was confined to a sanatorium. Neither was he keen on his sister, Eleanor, being jealous of the little money she and her husband had saved. Emilie Bukowski made things more difficult by showing favoritism to Henry and his wife. `My grandmother thought Kate was really something,' says Katherine Wood. `She thought she was kind of above us. It was a snob thing.'
They moved to nearby Los Angeles in 1924, first to a small house on Trinity Street, not far from downtown, and three years later to a two-bedroom bungalow on Virginia Road in the Jefferson Park area. Apart from his travels around America in the 1940s and early '50s, Bukowski lived his whole life in and around LA and the city became an integral part of his writing. Indeed, few writers of literature have been so closely associated with, or so lovingly described the city, a place often dismissed as ugly, dangerous and culturally desolate.
LA was quite beautiful in 1924, almost a paradise; the sky was unclouded by smog, and there were still orange groves between the boulevards. The neighborhoods were safe enough for Angelenos to leave their doors unlocked, and for children to ride bicycles to the beach after school. It was a city of just over a million people, a fraction of what it became, and there was a heady boom town atmosphere, partly because of the film studios in Hollywood. Henry wanted his share of the good life. But the best job he could find was with the LA Creamery Company, delivering milk by horse and cart.
Henry and Kate dressed their son in velvet trousers and shirts with frilly collars, in the German style. `Isn't he sweet?' Kate wrote home on the back of a photograph. `When you ask him who he likes the best, he says, "I like mother as much as father and father as much as mother".'
Kate called her husband `my biggest treasure' in her letters, but dropped hints he was not an easy man to get on with. One set of photographs she sent home to Germany was from a day at Santa Monica beach. Kate wrote that Henry wanted her to send these pictures to prove they were having fun in America. Included was a snap of Bukowski, sitting on the sand with a Stars and Stripes flag. He looked thoroughly miserable.
In his autobiographical writing, in interviews and letters to friends, Bukowski made it plain that his childhood was joyless and frightening and, about this part of his life, at least, he seems to have told the unvarnished truth. `A twisted childhood has fucked me up,' he wrote. `But that's the way I am, so I'll go with it.' He said he was forbidden to mix with other children because, in their snobbery, his parents considered themselves better than the neighborhood where they lived. They didn't even like him playing on his own in case he spoilt his clothes. Not surprisingly, the local children jeered at the prissy boy, calling him `Heinie', and they sniggered at his mother's `Kraut' accent.
Bukowski was also set apart from other children by dyslexia. As he later described in his poem, `education', his mother wept when she was summoned to school to be told about the problem, chiefly because she was scared of what his father would say.
`oh, Henry,' my mother said,
`your father is so disappointed in
you, I don't know what we are
going to do!'
father, my mind said,
father and father and
words like that.
I decided not to learn anything
my mother walked along
she wasn't anything at
and I had a bellyache
and even the trees we walked
seemed less than
and the more like everything
It was while he was attending Virginia Road Elementary that his father beat him for the first time, because he had been sent home with a note for fighting. Many punishments followed. `My ass and the backs of my legs were a continual mass of welts and bruises,' Bukowski wrote. `I had to sleep on my belly at night because of the pain.' Henry also beat Kate. He had affairs and once abandoned the family, taking a room on West Adams Boulevard where he entertained his mistress.
Worse was to come when they moved to 2122 Longwood Avenue, what Bukowski later called, `the house of agony, the house where I was almost done in'. It was an unremarkable bungalow, one of thousands being thrown-up in the mid-city suburbs built in the Spanish style, covered in stucco and painted white. There was a yard at the back, car porch at the side, and a small front lawn. The house was a step up for Kate and Henry, slightly bigger and nicer than their previous homes, and each weekend they cleaned it from top to bottom. Their son was excused chores at first and seized this rare opportunity to mix with other children, kicking a football about in the street. The boys awarded him a proper American nickname: Hank, the name his friends would use the rest of his life.
Then one Saturday his father called for him and Bukowski turned to see him standing in front of the house in that peculiar way of his, with one foot in front of the other. He seemed almost excited. He wanted Bukowski to cut the grass, which normally would have been the work of no more than an hour because the lawns were not large. But his father made a sadistic game of it. He wanted the lawns manicured, front and back, so he would not find `one hair' sticking up.
Bukowski toiled all through the afternoon as his friends played football, knowing he would never get to the game. Finally his father came to check.
`I found a hair!' he shouted triumphantly.
The house smelt of polish and detergent. It was cool inside after working in the garden. Into the bathroom, his father ordered. It was a small room with white tiles, like a torture chamber. He was told to take his pants and shorts down. He bent over next to the tub with his head under the window. His father took the leather strop, which hung beside the mirror, and belted him three times. Next Saturday he would do it right.
The weekend manicuring of the lawn, and the inevitable punishments that followed for his failure to do the job properly, and for many other reasons too, became part of the routine of childhood. It was one of the reasons Bukowski came to talk so slowly he learned to think before speaking in case he upset his father. He claimed to have been punished almost daily, receiving up to fourteen lashes while his mother stood impassively in the doorway. Her failure to stop the beatings, or show compassion afterwards (she didn't even hug him) made Bukowski lose all respect and affection for her. He did not trust or like her. His mother became nothing to him.
`You can't help screaming especially when you are six years old, seven years old,' he said. But after a couple of years of this brutal treatment he decided not to give his father the satisfaction, and remained silent while he was being thrashed. `The last beating I got I didn't scream at all. I didn't make a sound and I guess that terrorized him because that was the last one.'
If the cruelty of his father was the primary influence on Bukowski's character, the second was the disfiguring acne which erupted when he was thirteen. The acne was not simply spots, but a pestilence of boils `the size of apples' he said. They erupted on every surface, and in every crevice, of his head and upper body: they were on his eyelids, on his nose, behind his ears and in the hair follicles on his head. They were even inside his mouth. `The poisoned life had finally exploded out of me. There they were all the withheld screams spouting out in another form.'
He was taken downtown to the gleaming new Los Angeles County Hospital where his condition was diagnosed as acne vulgaris, the worst the doctors had seen. Almost a freak case. The boils were to be lanced with an electric needle and drained of pus and blood. Bukowski endured the treatment without complaint, although it was painful. A nurse squeezed the pustules dry afterwards, and put him under an ultra-violet lamp before dressing the wounds. He developed a crush on the kindly girl who was so much more sympathetic than his parents. `They were ashamed of him. They were repulsed,' says Katherine Wood. `It was a horrible thing they did to him, and that's probably what shaped him into what he became.'
The only time he felt safe was when he was alone in his bedroom, lying on the counterpane, following the patterns of sunlight on the ceiling. Bukowski, who had already demonstrated a talent for creative writing at school where one of his essays had been read to the class, listened to airplanes droning overhead on their way to Los Angeles airport and was inspired to invent stories about fliers, writing them up in a yellow notebook for his own amusement. One of his first stories was about the daring adventures of a World War One-German air ace.
In January, 1936, Bukowski graduated from Mount Vernon Junior High with a mention in the student magazine, the Minute Man. In its look forward to what the alumni of '36 would be doing in twenty years, the editors predicted he would be a doughnut baker `trying to make more profit by putting bigger holes in the doughnuts'. The flip humor was in keeping with the cheerful faces of the boys and girls who lined up for their graduation photograph. They radiated confidence. Bukowski, in contrast, squatted in front, unsmiling, his arms wrapped tightly about himself.
At first the depression was something Henry and Kate saw at the movies on the news reel, before Henry's favorite Wallace Beery pictures footage of Okies and Arkies with their belongings heaped on the back of ancient Fords. Then people they knew started to lose their jobs. Henry's elder brother, John, was out of work for many months, and, in January, 1936, Henry lost his job, too.
Soon many of the men on Longwood Avenue were out of work. The once proud and busy fathers of Bukowski's schoolmates mooched around their yards, unshaven and cantankerous, or sat smoking endless cigarettes. They drove to the local bars to get drunk, until they ran out of money for gasoline and beer, and then sold the cars and took the last of their money into the alleys to play seven-up and twenty-one. Shorn of the virility of work, they lost the respect of their sons who ran wild. A mood of stagnation pervaded the neighborhood, inspiring one of Bukowski's most evocative poems about childhood, `we ain't got no money, honey, but we got rain':
the jobless men,
failures in a failing time
were imprisoned in their houses with their
wives and children
the pets refused to go out
and left their waste in
the jobless men went mad
their once beautiful wives.
there were terrible arguments
as notices of foreclosure
fell into the mailbox.
Kate went out to work and they lived thriftily on makeshift meals, eating plenty of bologna, peanut butter sandwiches on day-old bread, fried eggs, canned beans, and stews made with what Bukowski joked was an `invisible chicken'. These meals were washed down with watery coffee. In a letter home to Germany for Christmas, 1936, Kate described how difficult life was. `I won't forget the first eight months of 1936 in a hurry,' she wrote. `We have suffered a lot. We nearly lost our house (and) couldn't make any payments for a whole year.' She added that Henry was depressed by his lack of work and felt he was `not a worthwhile man', and that they had been reading with admiration how Hitler was returning Germany to virtually full employment.
Henry pretended to the neighbors he was working as an engineer, driving off each morning as if he was going to a job and then walking the streets until 5 p.m. when he drove home again. Bukowski knew about the deception and thought it pathetic. He looked to outlaws like John Dillinger, Machine Gun Kelly and Pretty Boy Floyd as heroes, men who were not afraid to take what they wanted. He would always admire strong men, from writers like Hemingway to prize fighters, and champion jockeys, men he saw as the antithesis of his pitiful father.
The acne was so severe and needed such intensive treatment that he was excused the first semester of high school. From February through September, 1936, he stayed home alone while his mother was at her low-pay job and his father was at his imaginary job. He peeped through the drapes at the porch across the street where a woman sometimes sat with her skirt riding up around her thighs. Bukowski fetched his father's binoculars and tried to see what magic thing was up there, masturbating himself.
He started visiting the public library at the corner of La Brea Avenue and Adams Boulevard, taking armfuls of novels home. He read Sinclair Lewis' Main Street, D.H. Lawrence, John Dos Passos' USA, Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio and the early stories of Ernest Hemingway. There was a lot of time to read with no school to go to, and practically no friends to distract him, so he began reading the Russian novelists, too, sitting up until his father whose own literary tastes stopped at Edgar Allan Poe, appropriately enough came in and snapped off the bedroom light to save electricity.
The books which first excited Bukowski influenced his literary tastes for the rest of his life. He never got over his youthful passions and prejudices: loving Hemingway's early stories, for instance, but having no time for his later novels; enjoying Turgenev, but never getting to grips with Tolstoy. Also, as an adult, he mispronounced words and names he had read in adolescence, but had never heard spoken. It was a trait noticed by friends like the poet Miller Williams. He says that if Bukowski came to understand that he had made a mistake he would pretend it was on purpose. `It would have been a source of embarrassment, but he would hide that embarrassment by saying, "this is how I pronounce it, god-damnit, if you don't like it, you pronounce it your own fucking way."'
When his parents went to bed at 8 p.m., as they did most nights, Bukowski climbed out his bedroom window and walked up to the bars on Washington Boulevard where his acne scars made him look old enough to be served alcohol. One night he was too drunk to get back in through his window, so he came to the front door. His parents were horrified at his condition, and refused to let him in, so Bukowski burst the lock. He staggered into the living room and vomited on the rug. Henry came up behind him and pushed his head down.
`Do you know what we do to a dog when it shits on the rug?' he asked, forcing the boy's head lower. `We put his nose in it.'
Bukowski had never retaliated before, but warned his father to stop. Henry continued to push his face down into the sick, so Bukowski spun round and punched him.
`You hit your father! You hit your father!' Kate exclaimed, clawing his face with her nails. Apparently it was OK for the father to beat the child, but not the other way round.
Henry's snobbery was the reason Bukowski enrolled at Los Angeles High, the élite school of the city, after transferring from another high school which was nearer their home. LA High was built in the style of an Ivy League university on the outskirts of fashionable Hancock Park, and its students invariably went on to university and professional life. Bukowski had seen many of them at Mount Vernon; they were the same children who made fun of him in the Minute Man magazine, not because they were necessarily spiteful but because he seemed such an oddball. He later scorned these teenagers as `untested by life', but confessed he often heard them snigger when he came into class.
The girls at LA High looked beautiful in their fashionably casual clothes, and the boys handsome and healthy. The in-crowd lived what appeared to be a golden life, catching the Big Red street cars to the beach after school, and borrowing automobiles for weekend dates. They went dancing at the Biltmore Bowl, or to a drive-in and on to Hugo's hot dog stand. The school was so perfect it was used for the filming of a Jackie Cooper comedy, What a Life.
Bukowski hated LA High. His father made him join to fulfill a social fantasy, but he was never going to fit with the Hancock Park set. His family had significantly less money than most of the students. His skin problem made him look strange at a time in life when looks are so important and, at this age, he was unable to overcome these handicaps with the force of his personality.
`His acne was very noticeable,' says former pupil Roger Bloomer. `He had a bad case and that was tough for a kid. That was why he was so quiet and a loner. He would be around, and say hello, but he never really joined in the circle. He wasn't particularly happy. He wasn't outgoing.'
Scared the other boys would see the boils on his back if he stripped for gym class, Bukowski opted to take ROTC (Reserve Officers' Training Corps), a form of military training. Stephen Cavanaugh, the student who led Bukowski's ROTC battalion, says he was neither rebellious nor troublesome. In fact, he got on well in their pretend army, being promoted to sergeant, just like his old mart, and even won a drill competition.
Bukowski graduated high school in the summer of 1939. He hadn't intended to go to the senior Prom, partly because he didn't have a date, but found himself crouched in the bushes outside the gymnasium on the night, peering in at his fellow students. The roof beams had been decorated with blue and white crêpe paper and hundreds of balloons were suspended in a net over the stage where a band was playing the tune, `Deep Purple'. A mirror ball revolved slowly, reflecting lights onto the happy faces.
He had never had a girlfriend, or any sexual experience, apart from masturbating and weekend visits to the burlesque shows at The Follies and The Burbank on Main Street, so the sight of the girls in their ball gowns made a big impression on him. They all looked so beautiful and sophisticated, like grown women. As he explained in his novel Ham on Rye, he knew he would never be able to speak to one of them, let alone dance. He was amazed the other boys knew how. They had learned things he was ignorant of, and part of him craved to be included. Then he caught his reflection in the glass, and was shocked by how ugly and desperate he looked in comparison. There was no way a guy like him would ever be part of that normal world. It made him angry to be excluded. He hated them for it, but told himself that one day he would be just as happy.
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