Charles Bukowski in Modern Culture
Charles Bukowski has always been a polarizing writer. His poems, short stories, novels and general persona utilize an “honest to a fault” aesthetic. Readers seem to either love him or hate him. Described as a working man’s truth-sayer, the poet laureate of skid row, a mysoginist and much more, it is difficult to deny the honesty in his voice. Regardless of a writer’s standpoint on Bukowski’s socio-political stances, the self-deprecating truth and emotion in his voice is an essential craft and voice study for any literary writer. He has inspired filmmakers and musicians: Barfly, Modest Mouses’ track titled “Bukowski” and more. Bukowski’s impact on modern culture is undeniable and ongoing.
For fun and a quick immersion into “Bukowski culture,” listen to the following song by Modest Mouse and watch the short scene from Barfly starring Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway. Look for the Charles Bukowski cameo.
Reading: Bukowski Primer
“Biography: Charles Bukowski (1920-1944)” (Poetry Foundation)
South of No North by Charles Bukowski (If you do not yet have this collection or cannot borrow it from the library, please order one of the digital versions below for immediate access. We will be reading the short story, “All the Assholes in the World and Mine,” for this lesson, but I encourage you to read more stories in this collection so to immerse in Bukowski’s “nothing-to-lose truthfulness” as we will be using this as inspiration for your writing assignment this week.)
- South of No North by Charles Bukowski (Barnes and Noble/Nook)
- OR South of No North by Charles Bukowski (Amazon/Kindle)
Discussion: What Are Your Demons?
Bukowski follows Hemingway’s rule: “Writing is easy. Just open a vein and bleed.” In “All the Assholes in the World and Mine,” Bukowski uses a self-deprecating honesty, what writers like to call “confessional” prose and humor to exploit his worst attributes in order to bolster his narrative and entertain his readers–i.e. horse track gambling, binge drinking, loneliness. For Bukowski, his fictional narratives were not fantastical, they were real and familiar with flourishes of wit, imagery, meditations on “the why”:
It was the ninth race and the horse’s name was Green Cheese. He won by 6 and I got back 52 for 5 and since I was far ahead anyhow, it called for another drink. “Gimme a shota green cheese,” I told the barkeep. It didn’t confuse him. He knew what I was drinking. I had been leaning there all afternoon. I had been drunk all the night before and when I got home, of course, I had to have some more. I was set. I had scotch, vodka, wine and beer. A mortician or somebody called about 8 p.m. and said he’d like to see me. “Fine,” I said, “bring drinks.” “Do you mind if I bring friends?” “I don’t have any friends.” “I mean my friends.” “I do not give a damn,” I told him. I went into the kitchen and poured a water glass ¾’s full of scotch. I drank it down straight just like the old days. I used to drink a fifth in an hour and a half, two hours. “Green cheese,” I said to the kitchen walls. I opened a tall can of frozen beer.
Bukowski, Charles (2009-03-17). South of No North (p. 152). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
The bold-faced lines above are a combination of repetitions and what some poets call “turns,” flourishes and movements into other thoughts. Notice how the “turns,” work as well in prose as they do in poetry. The reader laughs and cringes simultaneously at these lines while anticipating more. The lines also conjure a sense of linguistic and contextual repetition, also poetic vehicles—i.e., green cheese, alcohol… In the next to last line, when the narrator speaks “‘Green cheese,’ I said to the kitchen walls,” the narrative evokes a sense of closure in the repeated “Green cheese,” as well as a certain empathetic and emotional connection to the loneliness of the narrator speaking to his kitchen walls, especially after the narrator’s confession “I don’t have any friends.” Through self-deprecation and linguistic, contextual repetition, Bukowski evokes a cyclical motion within the opening paragraph of “All the Assholes in the World and Mine.”
Bukowski used his life, failings and ironies to strengthen his narratives. He was unapologetic about it, an “asshole,” and yet, the combination of unapologetic, honest portrayal of his demons, with a dash of humor, makes the narrative addictive.
In the below Comment/Discussion section, explain your past “demons.” Tap into the attributes of your own behaviors, choices, addictions and so on that you would never confess in “polite society.” Remember, in your “real life,” we understand that you’ve dealt with this appropriately. In this lesson, we are looking at organic flaws as narrative inspiration. When we mine our personal flaws for emotional honesty in our fiction, our narratives become three-dimensional and far more emotionally accessible for our readers.
Writing Confessional Prose
Using your above discussion point, let your narrator/protagonist explore this flaw in a first person narrative 1000 words or less. Focusing on this flaw, choose a setting that will allow the protagonist to exacerbate and act on this flaw. Let the protagonist be both aware and nonchalant about it. To narrow the focus and make your job easier, limit the scope of this narrative to a single moment, a single scene, no more than two characters (the protagonist and antagonist, or character who works against the protagonist). Remember, characters in literary fiction are neither villains nor angles, neither all “good” nor all “bad.” We do not deal in righteousness and evil in literary fiction. We are always looking at the human and flawed truths we all share.
Barfly (1987) Directed by Barbet Schroeder (presented by Francis Ford Coppola)
If you’d like to watch the entire film in French…
If you’d like to watch the entire movie in English…
Rae Bryant is the author of the short story collection, The Indefinite State of Imaginary Morals. Her stories and essays have appeared in print and online at The Paris Review, The Missouri Review, Diagram, StoryQuarterly, McSweeney’s, New World Writing, Gargoyle Magazine,and Redivider, among other publications and have been nominated for the Pen/Hemingway, Pen Emerging Writers, &NOW Award and Pushcart Prize. She has won awards in fiction from Whidbey Writers and The Johns Hopkins University as well as fellowships from the VCCA and Hopkins to write, study and teach in Florence. She earned a Masters in Writing from Hopkins where she continues to teach creative writing and is editor in chief of The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review. She has also taught in the International Writing Program at The University of Iowa. Rae is the director of The Eckleburg Workshops. Rae is a member of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, AWP, NBCC, CLMP and Johns Hopkins Alumni Association. She is represented by Jennifer Carlson of Dunow, Carlson and Lerner.
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