Bukowski & the Holy Trinity
After revisiting infamous laureate of low-life Charles Bukowski’s work, Colin Montgomery is convinced his epitaph was spot-on
Author, poet and by his own admission alcoholic bum – albeit one of the world’s most talented alcoholics – his headstone proclaims ‘Don’t Try’.
As epitaphs go, it’s up there with Spike Milligan’s ‘I told you I was ill’. Although the ecclesiastical prudishness of East Sussex vergers prevented his from being rendered in English. Spike had to make do with Irish Gaelic.
Bukowski would have hated much of that opening preamble. He was no fan of showy sentences and sub-clauses. He kept it ruthlessly simple.
For him, life was indeed simple - a horrible, relentless, grinding, soul-destroying simplicity admittedly, but simplicity all the same.
Strip back the snobbery, the sweaty status-chasing, the numbing niceties, the morality play of manners and the faux respectability, afforded mostly to those who least deserved it and you arrive at the same bitter conclusion: it was all a stinking charade with no true reward other than empty victories over your fellow man. But once the obligatory fist pumping was over, what then, more of the same?
I was asking the question of myself recently, having dipped into what are probably the three most admired – and most famous – of Bukowski’s rambunctious outpourings:
In order: Post Office, Factotum and Ham on Rye. The first two came to define him; the third was, arguably, his attempt to define himself (although it could be said that many writers spend a lifetime trying to unpack themselves through their output and end up simply shutting the suitcase and chucking it in the canal). They represent his unholy trinity.
Near religious reverence and alcohol-soaked tales of ordure, opportunistic sex, casual misogyny and grim debauchery? Sure, I mean there’s a God of Wine for a reason. That said, I bet Bacchus/Dionysus didn’t have to clock into a dead-beat job in the morning and work off a hangover while sweating buckets through a migraine sieve as a ball-breaking sadistic supervisor hovered, ready to dock his pay for one lousy misstep (or perceived slight). That was the existence documented by Bukowski in all three of those aforementioned novels.
Post Office and Factotum in particular are where Bukowski really vents his disgust, for the mindless labour, wage slavery and all-round shithousery of menial monotony – something he lived out in his life, through his literary doppelganger, Henry Chinaski.
I say menial; it was in fact, good honest graft, but graft imparts some kind of nobility. And this was not the endeavour of the sacred protestant creed, forever fetishizing ‘work’ as a purifying act justified in and of itself.
Fortunately, Bukowski could handle a typewriter as well as he could handle an 8am shift after drinking until 3am. And the result is wondrous to behold. By turns laconic and hysterical. Searing insights and thudding filth doing battle in short punchy sentences, devoid of kindness, compassion or gentility… yet always capable of moving you. Especially if you’ve dipped a toe – heck even a pinkie – into the grotty pustulating pool Bukowski swam in.
I don’t mean the overripe alleys and deadbeat bars of Los Angeles – his natural habitat. No, I mean the world of work when that work isn’t deemed professional. Where kitchen porters skulk. And cleaners spit. And tender graduates live out their fantasies of poverty tourism whiling away the hours working for Edinburgh Council.
I was never going to go under if it all fell apart – I had a loving family prepared to see me through if I’d ever fallen on hard times. But it was an education after my ‘education’ all the same. And I’m thankful for it.
It was during those days that I first picked up Bukowksi. Returning to his filthy bosom, and his cynical diatribes against work – after a day of utter banality was sweet, sweet, milk indeed. It helped that, when I picked up Post Office, the memory of work as a Christmas relief postman in Muirhouse, was still fresh in my tiny eggshell mind.
Los Angeles/Muirhouse: Same shit different city, at no point did I imagine that I would be transported to something better.
My art degree meant jack-shit to just about anyone in those circles (rightly so). Did that mean subscribing to Bukowski’s famous dictum ‘Don’t try’? As far as I’m concerned that misses the point, it really means ‘Don’t care’.
Far be it from me to quibble graveside with old Charles, but making an effort is not in itself wrong – it’s caring that your effort counts to anyone other than you that hurts.
Which is to say, some people will admire graft or endeavour or achievement. Just don’t do it for them. Do it for yourself. And whatever will come from it, will come from it. Or as my old Granny said: “what’s for you won’t go by you”.
It doesn’t have the brevity of Bukowski’s final utterance admittedly. But it’s just as relevant in its own way. Try it sometime.