Book Review: Absence of the Hero, Vol. 2 by Charles Bukowski
City Lights, April 2010
by Adam Perry
Charles Bukowski was not a great role model for me as a teenager in suburban Pittsburgh. As a junior and senior in high school, I stole all his novels and short-story collections from the local Borders and reveled in reading Bukowski's (mostly) autobiographical tales of alcoholism, misogyny and poetry in California, a place I never dreamed I'd even get to visit. I was enthralled that enthusiastically menacing stories such as “Elevator Man” (1983)—about a serial rapist in an LA apartment building—and the literature-of-desperation-meets-porno novel Women (1978) even existed, and backed up my voracious reading of Bukowski's entire prose catalog with a sort of Chogyam Trungpa, "crazy wisdom" explanation about Bukowski living on a reckless road so that we don't have to.
Seeing that I went on to live out ill-fated Bukowski-inspired dreams in California, drink alcohol to excess on a regular basis and lead women who loved my writing on so I could sleep with them, the aforementioned justification was 100% bullshit. But Bukowski's catalog, which continues to grow with new releases even 16 years after his death, is not all trash. I never much liked Bukowski's poetry—in general, it's all one long poem about loving beer over mankind and writing in order to get laid—but the best of his short stories are among the most exciting and well-written American literature of the past century.
Collections such as The Most Beautiful Woman in Town (1983), Hot Water Music and Tales of Ordinary Madness (1983) showcase Bukowski's impressive narrative and creative abilities in stories that most often take place in bars and dingy apartments but are not simply about sex and alcohol. They're about staying alive in a world where the only choice for the majority of us is to face a firing squad in an office every day—the post office, in Bukowski's case—or maintain a commitment to creativity as we struggle to pay for food and a meager place to live. Bukowski, for example, survived by giving drunken poetry readings at American universities, which afforded him rent money, free booze and willing young women who didn't mind his acne-scarred face after witnessing his raucous stage persona.
Bukowski's characters, who are virtually always on the verge of either punching each other or fucking, hang on to life by holding on to each other, if only for one night or a couple of months. They treat each other horribly, with Bukowski's customary self-styled character Henry Chinaski usually taking the prize for worst-behaved, and are usually either drunk or hungover. But unlike Exit to Brooklyn and other erotically charged American tales of urban horror and desperation, many of Bukowski's short stories actually leave one with a warm glow, whether from reluctant-but-real love, brilliant delineation of sociological phenomena in America or, once in a while, juicy science fiction.
Absence of the Hero, Vol. 2, the latest book of uncollected Bukowski writings, begins with “The Reason Behind Reason,” a poignant tale of a professional baseball player who has somewhat of a psychotic break while playing the outfield. In the middle of a game, the centerfielder looks around at his teammates, the sky and the overall spectacle he's an essential part of; despite being confused and bewildered, he catches a fly ball and then runs with his teammates to the dug-out after the inning's final out. Then, in his next at-bat, the puzzled player hits a “screamer” off the outfield wall but fails to leave the batter's box, just standing there until the ball is thrown in to first base—at which point he walks to the locker room to faces the press as the story ends.
If only Bukowski had more consistently offered readers stories like “The Reason Behind Reason”—and had known when to nix the overboard nonsense such as “The Rapist's Story”—his readership may have expanded beyond horny high schoolers and college students who paid to have the writer come to their schools and perform (i.e. drink a case of beer on stage and berate the audience in between poems). However, Absence of the Hero and other recent collections further reveal not only Bukowski's prolificness but also the diversity of his talents and literary interests.
Literary geeks have surmised for decades that Bukowski hated the Beat Generation and the Beat Generation hated him, but it's more complicated than that. In a notable old Bukowski book—the title of which I can't seem to recall—the poet has been paid to speak at a university and is told when he arrives in his customary hotel room that William Burroughs is staying in the room next door. “Interesting,” Bukowski says sarcastically, and never makes a move to meet the oddball-genius Naked Lunch author. In Bukowski's entire catalog, references to the Beats are almost nonexistent, but Absence of the Hero provides somewhat of a breakthrough with an unearthed Bukowski review of Allen Ginsberg's Empty Mirror (1961).
“He's better to have around than not to have around,” Bukowski says of Ginsberg, which is one of the nicest things Bukowski is known to have said about the Beats. “I think that Ginsberg belongs somewhere,” he continues, “and that without his coming through, none of us would be writing as well as we are doing now, which is not well enough, but we hang on.”
Later in Absence of the Hero, Gregory Corso appears in New Mexico at the same time Bukowski doing a UNM-sponsored reading, and the inimitable author of “Marriage” proceeds to repeatedly tell Bukowski “I am your peer,” as if the little Italian eccentric was convinced that Bukowski had an inferiority complex for never being part of a major literary movement, let alone the major literary movement of his time. Bukowski and Corso proceed to drink together in an Albuquerque bar, and the reader wonders who dreamt up the Bukowski-Beat controversy in the first place.
Bukowski, who egotistically describes himself as “one-half Hemingway and one-half Bogart” at one point in Absence of the Hero, also had a lot in common with Jack Kerouac.
Although somehow Bukowski was able to endlessly abuse alcohol and live to age 73, while Kerouac died in his 40s of alcoholism-related physical trauma, they both strived toward what Bukowski calls here “the true line devoid of ornament.” Despite his Buddhist-inspired motto “first thought, best thought,” it's obvious the more-romantic and tender Kerouac did more revising, not to mention self-searching (as a young man) than Bukowski, who claims in the story “Henry Miller Lives in Pacific Palisades” that “I suffer for my writing.” But both writers came from poor families, were emotionally assaulted by one of their parents, and were never able to hold down a job or a marriage the way they could hold their booze.
Sure, Kerouac was known for trysts with beautiful, intelligent women while Bukowski admittedly slept with, as he says here, women “whose faces could use a little help,” but neither was able to sustain (or trust) the kind of honest, unconditional love they never received from their parents. That both of these men had daughters astounds, and sort of terrifies, me; however, it's interesting to think of Bukowski sitting alone in his Los Angeles kitchen with the windows open, drinking beer, listening to classical music and flailing away on a typewriter in the same time period when Kerouac sat alone on the other coast in his mother's kitchen taking speed, listening to classical music and flailing away on a typewriter. They could've kept each other company quite nicely, when you think about it.