"Charles Bukowski"

A biography of the lowlife nihilist forgoes the fig leaves.

Published May 27, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

In his 40-plus books of poetry and prose, Charles Bukowski (1920-1994) wrote paean after scabrous paean to fucking, drinking, gambling, shitting, smoking, masturbating, more fucking, more drinking, more gambling and then, ultimately, more drinking. Disheveled, degenerate and, more often than not, drunk, Bukowski was the human embodiment of a raised middle finger, a lowlife nihilist who laid bare the most perilous of human truths by laying bare his own perilous truths. Perhaps no writer of the 20th century -- or of any century, for the matter -- was so willing to chuck authorial dignity in the pursuit of those grainy truths. Whatever happened to Bukowski -- love, death, heartbreak, impotence or flatulence -- somehow found its way, rank and unadorned, into his writing.

For a biographer, this degree of autobiographical blur is both blessing and curse. A wide scree of raw data lies scattered through Bukowski's oeuvre, but its ample presence raises the question of why a biography is even necessary. Octavio Paz's observation -- "Poets don't have biographies. Their work is their biography" -- was never more apt than it is here. But this line of inquiry may be too precious. Bukowski's life, after all, was a gossip-monger's dream, a salacious string of rants and raves in which movie stars, skid-row drunks, famous poets and violent women moved about freely. The first biography of him, his pal Neeli Cherkovski's 1991 "Bukowski: A Life," was a thoughtful and stylish appraisal that nonetheless suffered from a lack of distance and a slight but significant bungling of facts. Now comes "Charles Bukowski: Locked in the Arms of a Crazy Life," by Howard Sounes, a 34-year-old British journalist.

Sounes' legwork is doggedly apparent. His book is rife with never-before-published photographs -- one of which, a shot of Jane Cooney Baker, an early love, will be especially intriguing to Buk fans -- and he was meticulous in hunting down documents in both the United States and Germany, where Bukowski was born. And nary a fig leaf is placed over any of Bukowski's escapades: not when he sodomizes a fellow male barfly in the early '50s, not when he all but rapes poet William Wantling's widow shortly after Wantling's death.

Yet there is a breezy thinness to much of Sounes' effort, particularly in his treatment of the formative years. Bukowski turns 40 on Page 46, which means that each of the bard's first four decades is allotted roughly 11 and a half pages. Little to no exegesis of Bukowski's poems and prose is provided. And Sounes' own prose too often veers from the sort found in high-school yearbooks (Bukowski "developed hemorrhoids to beat a world record"; "the arrival of the first copy at Mariposa was THE DAY") to the sort found in high-school term papers ("Sorting letters is not a sexy subject for fiction, but he makes it interesting and that is a significant accomplishment because repetitive work is the stuff of so many lives"). Amid such clunkery, the myriad quotations from Bukowski's work itself all but erupt from the page, like a taxidermist's bird struggling mightily to flap its dead wings.

By Jonathan Miles

Jonathan Miles, a contributing editor at Men's Journal, writes regularly for Salon Books.

MORE FROM Jonathan Miles

Related Topics ------------------------------------------