Tuesday, 20 October 2009

A postman wrote

With his scarred face, languorous delivery and fondness for booze, the late German-American writer Charles Bukowski perfected a template for the skid-row lowlife. Some might consider him a Beat poet, but he doesn't quite fit with the expansive joie de vivre of it all. While Kerouac went out on the road to seek enlightenment, Bukowski left home because there was no place else to go.

He stayed in motels and flophouses. Drank alone with the blinds pulled down, while Beethoven and Brahms blasted out of a transistor radio. In Philadelphia, he spent two-and-a-half years in a bar, fighting the landlord and running errands in exchange for free beer. Yet, with a bit of help from John Fante, the novelist who gave him his plain talkin' style, he defined the American underclass in his novels and poems, as he set about putting his experiences down on paper.

Bukowski's Los Angeles could be seen as the inverse companion of David Lynch's. While the movies are surreal explorations of the darkness behind the scenes of LA's rich, Bukowski breathed beer-stained life into autobiographical stories about the nobodies who posted their mail and packaged their meat in warehouses. Yet during the '80s he befriended the Hollywood elite, hanging out with Sean Penn and Madonna and writing a book based on his experiences: Hollywood. He had contempt for the fakes, once telling the future Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger, that he was 'a piece of shit'.

He was flawed: he womanised; he gambled; he drank - a lot. His fondness for the bottle came, he said, to avoid committing suicide. Throughout his life the abiding influence on his writing was the incredible cruelty he suffered as a child: his father converted the bathroom into a torture chamber in which he would belt him until welts and bruises covered the young Bukowski's body, his mother looking on. Consequently his writing embodied his disgust with hollow men who, like his father, exerted power over those below them simply because they could.

Inflated pride thrives on cheap brutality, and Bukowski knew it. But for all his nihilism, he was never cruel, just honest. Today, in London streets that reek of LA ersatz-ness, we could all do with a bit more of that.

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