Sunday, May 02, 2010

[Books] Book Look: Run With the Hunted, by Charles Bukowski

Book Look: Run With the Hunted, Charles Bukowski: Confession: I did not read the entirety of this book. It's an extensive collection of short stories and poems spanning Bukowski's full career. I read about 70% of it so I'm pretty sure I got the flavor.

The works in this collection are heavily autobiographical, which is a problem in itself. Bukowski's characters, including himself, are low-lifes. Unrelentingly so. If he is spinning mostly fiction you would have to say his imagination is a bit limited. If it is himself transcribed relatively truthfully, then you have to read this as autobiography which adds a certain voyeuristic impact. I tend to lean toward the latter because the world of degenerates he describes is so comprehensive and genuine sounding. But you never know -- all writers are liars. Anyway, I will refer to the main character in these stories/poems as Bukowski, for expediency sake, even though he generally takes the pseudonym Henry Chianski in the narratives.

Everything bad happens to Bukowski. He is an ugly, maladaptive boy with an abusive father. He is loathed by his classmates and only succeeds at bullying. His adolescence is scarred by his severe acne that eventually requires hospitalization. He spends his adulthood as a drinking, fighting, whoring, self-destructive shit heel. He gets dead-end jobs only when he needs booze money or is about to get kicked out of his room, then picks fights at work to get himself fired. A consummate alcoholic, he wakes with the thought of drinking and spends endless hours in dive bars bumming drinks whenever he can, then goes off to wherever he is flopping for the night semi-conscious. He is, frankly, disgusting.

There is a saving grace here, though. He knows he's disgusting. He puts on no airs about noble poverty or principled rebellion. He accepts that he lives as he does and commits the acts he does because he is a dirt bag. He does not blame our sick society, brand marketers, the police state, government socialism, or global warming for his pathetic life. His view of the world is personal not sociological or political. He is a wastrel because it's his nature. People are contemptuous and contemptible because they are human beings and that's their nature. He makes no excuses. Honestly, that's a refreshing change. It put me in mind of Wild Bill's line in Deadwood: "Can you let me go to hell the way I want to?"

There is an aspect to Bukowski's appeal that is the worst sort of cultishness. He is idolized by the sorts of celebrities that fancy themselves anti-establishment or agents of societal awareness -- Sean Penn, Bono, etc. The more enthusiastic of his readers are almost indignantly devoted to him, as a perusal of the forums at will evidence.

But it's not all a matter of counter-cultural fashion. Bukowski is quite a good writer. Blunt and unforgiving; think of Hemmingway ignobly distilled through a filter of hostility and malt liquor. His short stories and novel excerpts were the focus of my reading and they were invariably clear, unadorned narratives -- a drunk's life, straight with no chaser. His poetry was also quite readable, although I am out of my element when it comes to critical evaluation there. It held to the same themes, but the poems often seemed the same as the stories, just with the prose parsed. His resentment of authority is palpable. His pain his heightened by his tacit acknowledgement that he is to blame for himself. His writing is certainly more honest and genuine than his fans. There is probably meaning in that.

Still, he's a one trick pony in a certain sense. He writes of his life on the margins. That's it. You can only take so much of that before you start to feel like you're in a conversation with someone who keeps rehashing their experiences to validate their worldview. More so because his later writings, when he had achieved notability, if not success, and the attention of Hollywood are of considerably less interest.

All this presents a problem. It is a fairly well documented phenomenon of American bourgeoisie that they have a voyeuristic fascination the fringes and outcasts of society, often elevating them to a higher status than their own -- but only from a safe distance. Tom Wolfe most clearly identified this phenomena in Radical Chic. You can see it today in the fascination with reality TV such as Jersey Shore and lives of thug rappers. Even the popularity of The Wire is at least partly due to this inclination. Bukowski's sledgehammer portrayal of a degenerate alcoholic life invites this same sort of fascination, and the cultural and critical baggage that goes with it.

Should you read Running With the Hunted? If it seems the sort of thing that attracts you, there is nothing better than Bukowski. I cannot say that you would be better off reading this collection as opposed to one of the novels from which it draws -- Factotum or Post Office or Ham on Rye, but that may jut reflect my prejudice towards novels. If you are more lazy-minded you may want to just rent one of the movies based on his writings. Factotum, starring Matt Dillon and Lili Taylor, or Barfly, starring Mickey Rourke and Faye Dunaway, are both good, if not great, films. They will give you a feel for the material, but to get the full gut-punch of a brutally ugly life, you'll need to do your reading.